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By: Lindsey Loving   Date: 4/1/11
I spent the last two days attending the FDA Food Advisory Committee Meeting in Silver Spring, MD, where you could feel the tension in the air as scientific experts, advocates, industry, and consumers made their cases on an issue of high importance to the food safety and public health communities. The question at hand: Do food colors cause hyperactivity in children?

The Food Advisory Committee – comprised of 13 experts from fields such as toxicology, environmental health, neuroscience, food science, chemistry, nutrition, and child psychology – was charged with considering the available research on the topic and advising FDA on what action, if any, should be taken to ensure consumer safety. Specifically, they were asked to consider five questions, including whether the existing research supports FDA’s conclusion that a causal relationship between artificial food colors and hyperactivity has not been established, and whether additional labeling such as a warning statement should be required on food and beverage products containing artificial food colors.

The bulk of the meeting was devoted to presentations of relevant information for the Committee to consider as they deliberated the issue, including FDA’s regulatory approval and labeling requirements; relevant research; background on the causes and effective treatments of attention deficit/hyperactivity (AD/HD) disorder; FDA’s evidence-based review of food colors and hyperactivity research; and consumer advocacy and industry perspectives. The Committee carefully considered each presentation, asking detailed questions in an effort to understand and make sense of sometimes conflicting and inconsistent information.

Additionally, the Committee heard public testimony from approximately 15 individuals representing the scientific and medical communities, the food industry, and consumers themselves.

After reviewing all of the evidence and hearing testimony from all relevant parties, the conclusion from FDA's evidence-based review that a causal relationship between food colors and hyperactivity in children has not been established was upheld by the Committee, with 93% of the vote. Regarding whether additional labeling should be required on products containing artificial food colors, 57% opposed and 43% supported additional labeling. And, nearly all Committee members (93%) felt that more studies should be conducted. The Committee’s conclusions will be shared with FDA; however, it is unclear at this point what actions may be taken or changes made based on the information.

My takeaway from the meeting: the safety of food colors has been established for decades. The research looking at hyperactivity currently does not show a cause-and-effect relationship. Experts and scientists, as well as FDA, agree that there may be a very small subset of the population that could be sensitive to certain foods and food components, including but not limited to food colors. The reason for this is not clear, but may be due to a genetic predisposition of certain individuals, and is not due to any safety issue with the colors themselves. Without sound science to support it, a warning label could confuse consumers about safe ingredients we eat every day.

However, parents and consumers who are concerned and wish to avoid food colors can do so easily by reading the label on food and beverage products, as food colors are required to be listed in the Ingredients list of products containing them. Likewise, credible online sources offer helpful information about the safety and functionality of food colors. Some products containing natural colors or no coloring are also available. What works for one person may not work for another, so it’s important for those who are concerned about potential sensitivities and/or hyperactivity to talk to their child’s physician and/or a registered dietitian about the best treatment options, as removing entire foods or food groups from the diet can have nutritional implications.

Additional resources:

Hot Topic: Food Colors
Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)
American Academy of Pediatrics


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