I’ve been waiting to see what the FDA panel did before commenting on last week’s hearings on food dyes and hyperactivity in young children.
Research, says the FDA panel, is insufficient to conclude that food dyes cause hyperactivity. Despite much concern about this issue in Great Britain, the FDA will not put a warning label on foods that contain the dyes.
This is dÃ©jÃ vu all over again. When I first became interested in nutrition in the mid-1970s, food dyes were a big issue.
Hyperactivity in kids was a new thing. Ben Feingold, a physician in California, said that a diet devoid of food colors would help calm kids down.
The Feingold Association still encourages that diet.
But scientific tests of the Feingold hypothesis produced mixed effects. In 1980, Science magazine published two reports of such tests.
The first by James M. Swanson and Marcel Kinsbourne (Science 1980;207:1485-87) gave pills containing a mix of food additives to 40 children, 20 diagnosed as hyperactive and 20 not. The children diagnosed with hyperactivity reacted to the food additive challenge but the other children did not.
This study, however, was criticized for using pills, mixing additives, and evaluating the kids’ behavior by methods that were controversial.
A second study (Weiss, et al. Science 1980;207:1487-89) made a valiant effort to correct for those problems. It created two drinks that looked and tasted the same, one with a blend of seven food colors and one without. The study was carefully designed to be triple-blind. The drinks were formulated to look the same and neither the kids, parents, or observers knew what the kids were drinking. The drinks were tested at different times on 22 kids.
The result? Twenty of the 22 kids showed no reaction to the dyes. One showed occasional reactions.
But one child reacted to the dyes every time.
The interpretation? A small percentage of kids may react to food dyes.
That was pretty much the end of that except for petitions by Center for Science in the Public Interest to get rid of food dyes.
There things rested until 2007 when a study in England revived the issue.
Food dyes have only one purpose: to sell junk foods. Candy, Cheetos, and sodas that are brightly colored are perceived as tasting better than the grey alternatives. The food industry needs food dyes badly.
But nobody else does. Parents of hyperactive kids can easily do their own experiment and see if removing food colors helps calm their kids down.
Food dyes have no health benefits that I can think of. Kids don’t need to be eating those foods anyway. Kids will not be harmed by avoiding food dyes.
It would be nice to have more conclusive research. In the meantime, read food labels!
Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and Professor of Sociology at New York University. Her degrees include a Ph.D. in molecular biology and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, both from the University of California, Berkeley.
She is the author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism and What to Eat.
Her most recent book is Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, published by University of California Press in 2008.
You can read her Food Politics blog here:
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