Artificial Food Colors May Impact ADHD Symptoms, Says AAP Report

A new report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) raises concern that artificial food colors (AFCs), or artificial food dye, may impact ADHD symptoms. The report isn’t original research. Nor is it reason for panic, experts say. However, it’s an important reminder to encourage kids to eat more natural and fewer processed foods.

AAP is an organization of over 67,000 doctors, focused on childhood health. The purpose of its report is to urge the government to do more research on whether food additives may harm kids. Under federal law, there are more than 10,000 approved chemicals that can be used to preserve, package or enhance food.

AFCs are just one type of chemical discussed in the report. Others include bisphenol A (BPA), which is still found in some metal containers; phthalates used in clear food wrap; perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) used in cardboard; perchlorates used in food packaging; and nitrates used to preserve and enhance foods.

We asked Understood experts Thomas Brown, Kristin Carothers and Elizabeth Harstad to weigh in on the report.

Key Findings

According to the report, scientific research suggests that chemicals used as food additives may have negative effects on kids’ health. There are many possible concerns. These include obesity, reduced fertility and even risk of cancer.

One part of the report focuses specifically on the impact of AFCs on child behavior and ADHD (also known as ADD). AFCs are added to food to make it look more appealing. For example, AFCs are added to fruit juice to improve its color, which makes it more attractive to kids.

Here’s what the report says about AFCs and ADHD symptoms:

Over the last several decades, studies have raised concerns regarding the effect of AFCs on child behavior and their role in exacerbating [ADHD] symptoms. Elimination of AFCs from the diet may provide benefits to children with [ADHD].

It’s not clear how AFCs operate in a child’s body, the report says. But at least one AFC, called Blue 1, “may cross the blood-brain barrier.” This means when a child eats food with Blue 1, the chemical gets into the bloodstream, then maybe into the brain. This is relevant because ADHD is a brain-based issue.

Importantly, AAP says the available research is limited and has to be “interpreted with caution.” We still don’t know for sure the actual impact of food additives on kids. What AAP wants is more research.

Key Takeaways for Parents

“The report is somewhat alarming,” says Harstad. “But there is no need to panic. A better approach for parents is to understand that the foods we eat can impact our health and the health of our kids.”

Harstad and Carothers advise taking some basic steps to reduce kids’ exposure to chemicals. Buy fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables when possible, rather than canned products. Limit processed meats, like bacon, hot dogs and packaged lunch meats. Try to avoid heating plastic containers of food or plastic utensils.

The specific risk for ADHD isn’t known yet. “There’s a lot of scientific uncertainty about whether food additives have any significant effect on kids with ADHD,” says Brown.

“A small percentage of children with ADHD may have specific allergies that require a limited intake of some specific foods or drinks,” he says. “But there’s little reason for parents to start eliminating foods from their child’s diet because of ADHD.”

Harstad agrees. “I don’t think I can make a general statement that all kids with ADHD need to change their diets.” Diet doesn’t “cause ADHD,” she adds.

Nevertheless, she recommends observing your child closely. “As for any child, try to encourage a well-balanced diet with limited processed foods. If you have specific concerns about how your child reacts to certain foods, discuss these concerns with your child’s health care provider.”

All the experts advise parents to encourage kids to eat more natural foods.

“Consider buying foods that are as natural as possible and contain fewer additives,” says Carothers. “Just as for any child, kids with ADHD should eat more non-processed foods like fruits and vegetables.”

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About the author

About the author

Alexis Clark, MA, MS is a freelance editor for Understood and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.