Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: FDA: No link between food colorings and hyperactivity in most children

Parents, advocacy groups, and some scientists have long worried about a possible link between artificial food colorings and hyperactivity in children. In March 2011, an FDA panel concluded that there isn't enough evidence to prove that artificial food colorings contribute to hyperactivity, distractibility, and other behavior problems in most children. They did not find evidence that the substances are inherently toxic to the nervous system. Rather, the panel wrote that certain children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be uniquely vulnerable, not just to food colorings, but to any number of food additives. On that theme, only a small minority of children are vulnerable to the effects of artificial additives and it's difficult — and in practical terms, almost impossible — to determine who they are.

The FDA convened the Food Advisory Committee to review the scientific evidence on artificial dyes and hyperactivity after receiving a 2008 petition submitted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The CSPI asked the FDA to ban food dyes used in commercially prepared food.

For more than 30 years, researchers have been examining whether synthetic dyes and other chemicals might contribute to behavioral changes in children. Teasing out whether food coloring causes ADHD or if the two are merely associated is a tall order. By no means do the experts have it sorted out yet. The FDA committee's vote was in line with the consensus view among scientists, that diet alone is probably not the driving force behind ADHD symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsive behavior.

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