The Rainbow on Your Plate: What You Should Know About Food Colors

Yellow, red, and blue are seemingly harmless primary colors when seen in nature or on a color wheel. But when talking about color additives in food, some people have questions about their safety. Are food colors really a threat to your health? Even more, do they belong in your family’s food?


Are food colors safe?


The safety of food colors has been questioned by some consumers over the years.  Despite these concerns, a large body of peer-reviewed scientific research supports the safety of food colors. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found food colors permitted in the U.S. to be safe for use in food and beverage products at currently permitted levels. Under the regulation of the FDA, all color additives are subject to FDA approval before they may be used in food. (IFIC Foundation and FDA, 2010)


Why are colors added to foods?

Food colors are added to products to reduce color loss from contact with light or extreme temperatures. They are often used to enrich color or limit color differences naturally found in food. Food colors can also give foods a fun pop of color, like the rainbow sprinkles atop your frozen yogurt.


Do food colors cause hyperactivity (i.e. ADHD)?

Some parents concerned about ADHD (Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder) in children have raised questions about whether the condition could be caused by consuming food colors. FDA’s Food Advisory Committee recently evaluated all of the research studies examining the link between food colors and ADHD that have been conducted over the last 30 years and concluded that to date, evidence suggesting that food colors cause or trigger hyperactivity has not been found (FDA, 2011). Studies suggesting a link have come with certain limitations, like population size, participant error, etc. that prevent a cause-and-effect relationship from being established. (EFSA, 2008) Some researchers suggest further examination, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has stated that children with both a diagnosed food allergy or sensitivity and ADHD may benefit from limiting or eliminating food colors from their diet. Visit your registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), or other credentialed health professional, if you are thinking about making changes to your child’s diet.

There is over 30 years of sound research and evidence to rely on in regards to synthetic and “natural” food colors permitted for everyday use in foods and beverages.  So, when standing in the supermarket aisle debating one product over the other, you can be glad that there are safe and colorful choices for every preference.  

This blog was authord by Ashley Spence, University of Maryland Dietetic Intern.