By: Kerry Phillips, RD Date: 3/29/11
Many of us can probably remember a time when we’ve had difficulty paying attention, sitting still, or focusing on a particular task. And, most of the time, after a good night’s rest or a moment of relaxation, we are able to refocus on the task at hand. However, for a certain number of children and adults, these behaviors are so persistent that they interfere with work or school and negatively impact everyday activities.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) is a neurobiological disorder characterized by impulsive behavior, inattention, and in some cases, hyperactivity. While the exact causes of AD/HD are unconfirmed, experts agree that heredity plays an important role. Medication and behavior modification are the two methods found through scientific research to be most effective in treating AD/HD. Yet, despite these proven treatments, misinformation persists regarding the role of food and nutrition, particularly artificial food colors, in hyperactivity in children, with this very issue taking center stage at an upcoming public meeting of FDA’s Food Advisory Committee on March 30-31.
During this two-day public meeting, FDA will hear testimony and further explore whether the available research demonstrates a link between artificial food colors and AD/HD. In addition, FDA will discuss whether any changes are warranted to its current recommendations for the use of artificial colors, or certified color additives, in foods and beverages.
The debate surrounding food colors and hyperactivity is not a new one – it began in the 1970s when Dr. Benjamin Feingold popularized his theory that food additives, including artificial food colors, artificial flavors and salicylates, exacerbated child hyperactivity. Dr. Feingold’s work was largely refuted in the scientific community due to flaws in the study methodology and the study’s inability to establish a causal link.
More recently, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton reignited the debate; however, a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) panel of experts evaluated the study and found that the results were inconsistent and could not be used as a basis for altering the current levels of food colors in Europe.
There are nine certified (FD&C) food colors approved for use in the US. These colors are closely regulated by the FDA for use in foods. You may be surprised to learn that food colors provide functions beyond improving the visual appeal of food. In fact, food colors are often used to offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions; correct natural variations in color; and enhance colors that occur naturally. In addition, food colors can enhance the appeal of mealtimes for populations with food disorders or aging individuals who may experience a loss of appetite due to a diminishing sense of taste and smell. While certain foods containing colors, such as candy, desserts and sweetened beverages, should be enjoyed only occasionally, many nutrient-rich foods, including certain kinds of cheese, yogurt, and even some types of fresh fruits and fish, contain artificial food colors and can be consumed as part of a healthful diet.
According to a review of the research conducted by FDA and provided as part of the public meeting materials, “a causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established.” In addition, the report states that observed behavior changes do not appear to be due to any “inherent neurotoxic properties” of the food colors.
The food supply we enjoy today offers abundant variety and allows for consumer choice. Consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, sources of lean protein, and low-fat or fat-free dairy, along with moderate amounts of snacks, desserts and caloric beverages, will allow consumers to continue to enjoy foods containing food colors while focusing on meeting nutrition needs through a healthful and varied diet. People wishing to avoid foods and beverages containing artificial food colors can simply read the label, as artificial colors are required to be listed by name.
The next two days promise to be full of interesting testimony. Be sure to check our blog early next week for insights on the outcomes of the meeting.
For additional information on food colors and hyperactivity, visit:
IFIC-FDA Food Ingredients & Colors Brochure
IFIC Foundation Questions and Answers About Food Colors and Hyperactivity
Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHAAD) Statement on Diet and AD/HD
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Diet & AD/HD brochure