After my son ate a slice of neon-colored birthday cake, I started doing research on the connection between ADHD and artificial coloring. Here's what I found.
Credit: Illustration: Joel Penkman

I cringe when I see Griffin, my 8-year-old son, eat a piece of birthday cake with electric blue frosting. it’s not because of the load of sugar and buttercream he’s about to eat—it’s the off-the-charts hyperactivity that I know comes after he eats a certain blue dye. And when I took a quick Instagram poll, I found I’m not the only parent who swears that certain food additives—particularly artificial colors—trigger hyperactivity in their kids.

Is There a Connection?

It’s rare that we’re able to see immediate effects of food or an ingredient—other than an allergic reaction or food-borne illness—so perhaps this is why the connection between the blue dye and Griffin’s surge in hyperactivity jumped out at me. Initially, I second-guessed my observations and gut instincts as a parent, and I think it was mainly due to the fact that this particular blue dye was a food additive technically deemed “safe” by the FDA.

But I’ve now experienced one too many birthday parties with blue frosting to know that I not imagining things. The effect is way beyond a typical sugar rush or even “normal” 8-year-old activity and impulsivity. Rather, it’s an intense hyperactivity that puts his usually well-managed ADHD into overdrive, gets him frustrated over his lack of control and inability to “chill out”, and pushes me to my parenting limits for the new few hours.  

But is there any research to back up my observations? While there are lot of suggested and intertwined relationships between diet, hyperactivity and ADHD, I decided to start small by focusing on artificial colorings. Here’s what I learned.

Food Colorings, the FDA, and Safety

Any coloring, dye or pigment added to a food is classified as a “food additive”, which means the safety and usage of them in our food supply is regulated by the FDA. There are two categories of color additives that can be used in food: certified colors, and exempt or natural colors.

“Certified colors” are chemically-made or synthetic colors, and there are nine colors approved for use in food in the U.S.  Referred to as “artificial colors” by many, these tend to be brighter, more vibrant colors that aren’t necessarily found in nature.

Natural colors are pigments found in other foods or plants; an example might be using the pigment in beets to impart a purplish-red color to food product. These colors tend to be less vibrant and more expensive for manufacturers, but they aren’t associated with potential health effects.  

A color additive must demonstrate safety and a “reasonable certainty of no harm” to be approved for usage in foods.  But the FDA is also quick to state there’s no way to guarantee that there is absolutely no risk of harm—even in these approved ones. Also, while “safe” may mean there’s little threat to life or long-term health, it’s doesn’t guarantee that certain individuals aren’t susceptible to mild or moderate side effects.

Food Coloring and ADHD

While I can’t exactly call it good news, I do feel like my observations as a parent are validated after reviewing current research (and I’m not totally imagining things!)

There’s significant evidence to suggest that certain synthetic color additives may trigger hyperactivity in some children. In addition, research suggests that children with ADHD may be more sensitive to effects from those food colorings, essentially making hyperactive kids temporarily more hyperactive.  In fact, the European Union felt that the evidence was so convincing a few years ago that it now requires foods with certain artificial colors to include a warning label advising of “potential adverse effects on activity and attention in children.”

But potential side effects vary by child and dye color, and many kids may not be affected at all. These varying effects are partly what led the FDA to decide in 2011 that there was not enough conclusive evidence to support a link between synthetic colors and hyperactivity—only enough to suggest that this connection between synthetic colors and hyperactivity should be a focus area of research.  

What to Do as a Parent

I can’t micromanage Griffin’s diet like I could when he was a toddler, although I do steer him towards the piece of birthday cake with plain frosting. But I definitely look a little closer at labels and try to avoid artificial colorings whenever possible.  Here are some tips if you’re looking to avoid synthetic colors when shopping too.

Avoid Colors With Numbers

Synthetic colors approved for use in foods are going to be go by names like FD&C Blue No.1, Red 40, or Yellow 5. These can be found in common products such as cereal, candy, and sodas, so look in the ingredient list for numbered colors like these.  

Know What Label Terms Mean

A 100% organic product will not have synthetic food colorings in it, but a product that’s partly organic or contains some organic ingredients may. When in doubt, check the ingredient list.  

Know How to Recognize Natural Colorings

Here’s where it gets a little tricky: I mentioned earlier that many refer to synthetic dyes as “artificial colors”, but this term actually refers to both synthetic and natural food dyes—meaning it’s not as easy as simply avoiding foods with that label. Natural pigments in produce like anthocyanins and carotenes, as well as spices like turmeric and paprika, are a safe way to impart color so it’s worth checking out the ingredient list.