Artificial Food Colorings and ADHD Symptoms

Some children respond well to a diet free of artificial colorings.

Posted Jun 04, 2014

Ever since pediatrician Bejamin Feingold found, in the 1970s, that some kids with hyperactive symptoms respond well to diets without aritificial food colorings and preservatives, parents of ADHD kids have been interested in knowing whether changing their child's diet may help their child stay focused and eliminate the need for psychiatric drugs.

A study from Purdue University was recently reported on ABC News. The study, published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics in 2010, indicates that many children could be consuming far more artificial dyes than previously thought, and that these dyes may cause ADHD-type symptoms in some kids. The study found that "parents who are interested in nonpharmacological interventions for ADHD or whose children do not respond to standard treatment should be encouraged to examine their children’s diets. When there is an interest, there is no reason that children on medications cannot also be tested for food and additive hypersensitivities."

In the United States, food companies are not required to show how much artificial coloring goes into their products. A food product that is popular with children, packaged breakfast cereal, sometimes have high levels of food colorings. Trix and Cap'n Crunch Oops All Berries have levels that in some studies have triggered ADHD symptoms in a small number of children. Many other common foods popular with kids are artificially colored or flavored, including most bakery items, cookies, cakes, icings (even white frosting), most candy, most soft drinks, fruit punches, sports drinks, gelatin, pudding, barbecue sauce, pickles, snack foods, soup and salad dressings.

Grocery manufacturers predictably claim that the Purdue study is "drastically imprecise and could have easily produced inaccurate findings" and also says "our companies continuously review and monitor all emerging science and scientific studies to help ensure that we are always producing the safest possible product for our consumers." Child psychiatrists, similarly, have long claimed that ADHD is a biologically-based disorder and that there is no scientific evidence that artificial food dyes are a factor in causing ADHD symptoms. Feingold himself met with massive rejection and even ridicule from his medical colleagues when he introduced his theory. 

Yet the idea that food may be a factor in ADHD symptoms lingers despite the scepticism of psychiatrists and the food industry, and the lived experience of many parents contradicts the view that changes in diet cannot reduce ADHD symptoms. One mother told me that when she removed artificial preservatives, artificial food dyes, sugar, and gluten from her daughter's diet, she no longer needed the Adderall she had been prescribed for her ADHD. Another mother found that her son's tic disorder, as well as his inability to concentrate, disappeared when she removed these same foods from his diet. Other parents of kids with hyperactivity and focusing problems have had similarly good results when putting their kids on the GAPS (Gut and Psychology) diet.  

While eliminating certain foods from a child's diet might not work with all children that have ADHD-type symptoms, research indicates that dietary interventions might well work for some kids. Parents should consult their child's pediatrician for information on dietary factors in ADHD. 

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. 

Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. is the author of A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic and Pills Are Not for Preschoolers: A Drug-Free Approach for Troubled Kids.

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