Are food dyes linked to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder? It depends who you ask. A recent Dutch study suggests yes; while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) staunchly denies it.
Perhaps a more pertinent question is, “Are food dyes linked to ADHD in adults?”
Five million US children now have a diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and the numbers keep rising. For decades, there’s been a sneaking suspicion that petroleum-based food dyes (substances the FDA politely terms “food additives”) play a significant role.
Two widely-used food dyes, Red No. 40 and Yellow No. 6, have been shown to cause hyperactivity in kids. Pediatric allergist Dr. Benjamin Feingold first raised the alarm about this in the 1970s when he successfully treated hyperactive patients with a diet free of food coloring.
These dyes are virtually ubiquitous in US packaged foods and beverages.
Foods sporting an orange-red color come from Red No. 40, otherwise known as known as Allura Red, which is made from petroleum. (Its predecessor, Red No. 2, was yanked off the market in 1972 when it was found to be carcinogenic.) It’s also found in sodas and fruit drinks such as Sunkist and fruit punches, plus such snack foods as Cheetos and Doritos chips, nacho cheese, strawberry Pop-Tarts, plus any candy with red coloring, including M&M’s, Skittles, jelly beans, and chewing gums.
American children are exposed to more synthetic dyes than in any other country. According to CSPI, many of the processed food products marketed to US kids contain artificial colorings, while the very same products sold in the UK do not.
For example, Fanta orange soda sold in Britain uses pumpkin and carrot extract to provide its bright orange color, while US Fanta uses Red No. 40 and Yellow No. 6.
McDonalds’ strawberry sundaes are actually colored with berries in Britain, but are dyed with Red No. 40 in the US. The British government asked companies to stop using most dyes by December 2009, and food dyes used in Europe are required to carry a warning notice.
Recently the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the FDA for warning labels about synthetic food additives.[ ] These would be placed on such popular children’s food products as Froot Loops cereal, Pop Tarts, Jell-O, and fruit-flavored drinks.
It came as no surprise that the FDA rejected the appeal. But the closeness of the vote (8-6 against) did raise a few eyebrows, indicating that their medical experts were almost tied on the matter.
The real shocker came when the FDA admitted for the first time that children with behavioral problems who consume synthetic food dyes may see their symptoms worsen.
Despite this, the use of food dyes in the US is increasing. FDA data reveals that the daily amount of food dyes allowed for consumption each day per person has increased five times between 1955 and 2007, up to 59 milligrams per day.
And this also happens to include adults. Red 40 appears in many adult beverages, including V-8, Gatorade, and Ocean Spray Ruby Red grapefruit juice. Surprisingly, it’s also in Pillsbury pie crusts and several brands of vanilla cake mixes and frostings, as Red 40 mixed with Yellow No. 5 creates a more “golden” look.
Vitamins and pain relievers/cold medicine often have Red 40 in the ingredients. It’s even in strawberry-flavored Ensure.
Now, for the first time, solid data confirms the baleful effects these dyes are having on human health .
Dutch researchers took 100 non-medicated children who’d been diagnosed with ADHD and fed half of them a “clean” diet free of processed foods and allergens. The other 50 served as the control group.
After five weeks, more than 60 percent of the kids in the test group saw their symptoms either vanish completely or fall out of the clinical range, according to the lead researcher, Dr. Lidy Peisser of the Research Centre in the Netherlands.
But it isn’t only children who suffer from ADHD in this country. Experts estimate that as much as 15 percent of the adult population suffers from ADHD, split equally between both men and women, although men’s symptoms are more apparent.
It used to be thought that children with ADHD would “get over” their disorder. But now, it’s accepted that most cases of ADHD are for life.
And adults with ADHD may have a lifelong history with the condition. Before its current diagnosis, ADHD was identified as “dyslexia,” reading difficulty, hyperactivity, or behavioral problems. Since one of the symptoms of the disorder is low impulse control, many children with ADHD grew up to drop out of school and struggle with the justice system, often ending up incarcerated.
If food dyes make symptoms worse for children, why shouldn’t’ we assume they have the same effect on adults?
Adults with the disorder tend to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, have more automobile accidents, get fired from their jobs more often, and do less well financially over their lifetimes. And adult ADHD may play a major role in relationship difficulties.
As one reader with ADHD says, “If you know someone whose life seems like a complete mess, is constantly late, is always losing things, seems distracted or day-dreamy, often says inappropriate things, may be moody or angry a lot, can’t seem to stick to something to completion, it’s likely that this person has ADHD.”
As journalist Gina Pera’s best-selling book, Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD? Stopping the Roller Coaster When Someone You Love Has Attention Deficit Disorder (1201 Alarm Press, 2008) points out, many middle-aged and older couples have fallen into painful, constricting roles where one member, often the man, is placed in the default breadwinner position, although he chronically under-functions at work. While he flounders, his wife has to hold the family together, which leads to tension, stress and depression.
Pera moderates an online support group for adult partners of people with ADHD at http://www.chaddnorcal.org/index.htm. Many of this group’s blog posts attest to the chaotic lives that partners of people with ADHD lead: late-paid bills, tax troubles, worrying that your partner isn’t taking his or her medication. These are serious issues, and in America today, it’s very difficult for people with modest incomes to get treated and helped.
If you have adult ADHD and don’t want to take medication, cleaning up your diet is a promising first step. Based on the Dutch study, eating a diet based on whole foods, avoiding sodas, eliminating food products containing dyes, cutting down on wheat and sugar, and eschewing as many processed foods as possible can help reduce ADHD symptoms.
Much attention has been focused on ADHD in children, while adults suffering similar symptoms have been heretofore off the radar screen. Even a skeptic would have to admit that, at the very least, eliminating junk food is a positive step in overall health for both groups. And if this leads to a more organized and harmonious life, all the better.
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