Research confirms that artificial food dyes can negatively affect some children’s behaviour, but labelling in Canada is slow to catch up.
Decades ago, artificial food colouring was not a concern for most families. People ate foods they prepared from scratch in their own kitchen. Sure, people ate bright pink strawberry ice cream, but not every day. But as the prevalence and convenience of processed food mushroomed, food companies counted on the appearance of various products as a major selling point. Artificial food dyes then became a food industry staple.
A recent evaluation of the use of particular food dyes consumed by children in the U.S., conducted at Purdue University, showed that the amount has risen from 12 milligrams per child per day in 1950 to 68 milligrams per day in 2012. Canadian figures are likely to be similar.
It was more than four decades ago when Dr. Ben Feingold, a pediatric allergist, suggested that certain ingredients in food, such as salicylates, artificial colouring and artificial flavours, could affect the behaviour of children. But his research was not well received by the scientific community and his theory about their link to hyperactivity was ignored for many years.
Simply put, he was thought to be a quack, rather than a scientist breaking new ground.
Further research, though, showed that there was indeed merit to Dr. Feingold’s claims. The interest in this area also seemed to balloon as more and more children were not only being diagnosed with various behavioural problems, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but that medication use in their treatment was also rising sharply.
Three separate large reviews of the research have now concluded that dyes can trigger hyperactivity or ADHD symptoms in sensitive children, while another states that getting rid of these artificial food colours is a potentially valuable treatment approach for ADHD.
Another study, published in the British journal Lancet, assessed food additives and hyperactive behaviour in two different age groups of children: three-year-olds and eight- to nine-year-old children using what’s called the gold standard of research, a randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled trial. This kind of research means that no one, including the researchers, parents, teachers or children, was aware of who received the drinks with colouring and who did not. The study’s conclusion was that artificial colours or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in both the age groups in children in the general population.
Following the publication of this study, the British government urged food manufacturers to stop using the particular dyes tested in the studies (which includes the three dyes most widely used in North America: Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6). The government went even further by advising parents of youngsters showing signs of hyperactivity or ADHD to avoid those dyes. The British Food Standards Agency has since encouraged the food industry to stop using certain food dyes while also listing food establishments with products free from these dyes. The government agency also advises consumers to eliminate certain food dyes from the diet of children showing signs of hyperactivity or ADHD.
In the European Union, foods that contain certain dyes must carry the warning notice, “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Not surprisingly, there aren’t many products in that marketplace containing these dyes.
In Canada, manufacturers have the option of declaring colours by name or by the general term “colour”. Gary Scott Holub, media relations officer for Health Canada says, “Health Canada is finalizing the necessary analysis to develop a potential regulatory proposal that would require food colours to be declared on food labels by their common name when they are used in prepackaged foods sold in Canada. This would enable consumers, including anyone with sensitivities to certain food colours, to make more informed choices.” But there is no date for implementation and the proposals still have to go through all the regulatory hoops.
It’s interesting, or should I say disheartening, to note our food regulations aren’t yet helping consumers or even discouraging the use of these food colorants. The very same food companies producing and selling products free of artificial dyes in Britain and Europe, continue to fill our supermarket shelves with the same items but containing these questionable ingredients.
For parents and consumers who are tired of this, speaking up with your food dollars might help make a point to food companies.
If you think your children might be affected by these ingredients, speak to their healthcare provider about possibly eliminating these suspect ingredients from their diets through a planned approach.
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Visit rosieschwartz.com for more.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2014.