Do artificial food colours cause hyperactivity in children?
There has been a lot of mixed evidence on this topic and it is one that people will always have differing opinions on, despite the available data.
Two studies emerged back in the 70s that suggested food colours and preservatives did cause behavioural disorders in children . A more recent study from 2007 also suggested that certain food colours and preservatives (likely when eaten in particular combinations or doses) cause behavioural changes . This was known as the Lancet study but the exact combinations or doses that had to be eaten to cause symptoms could not be determined, nor could any symptoms be attributed to single additives alone . The inability to link the behavioural changes with specific additives was a big limitation. The results of this study have since been disregarded by reviews on the topic.
Despite results of the above research, a vast majority of studies and literature reviews that have since been conducted show that no link can currently be made between hyperactivity in children and food additives . This conflicting evidence started appearing very soon after the studies in the 70s were published.
An article was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Paediatrics, in 2012. The paper was a review of the research conducted on artificial colours and flavours from the past 35 years. The review concluded that artificial colours and flavours do not cause behavioural disorders in children . It did however; find that in a particular subgroup of children who had ADHD, a diet low in artificial colours could potentially improve symptoms . The children in this group were of a younger age (pre-school or primary school age) and had allergies or irritability and problems sleeping. They recommended that for these subgroups, a diet lower in artificial colours be trialled to see if any behavioural improvements were made .
In 2012, FSANZ also concluded that the current scientific evidence did not show a link between food additives and hyperactivity [1, 4]. This was still determined after looking at results from the Lancet study [1, 4].
In 2011, the US Food and Drug Administration conducted a thorough review of the published scientific data on the causal link between food colours and behavioural changes in children . The review looked at both positive and negative findings from clinical trials and considered their credibility and reliability . The reviewed data was again unable to support a link – with the exception of those children with ADHD who are more sensitive .
Are artificial food colours safe for your children?
A ‘Supplementary Colours Report’ was conducted by FSANZ in 2012. The report shows that children are consuming well below the Acceptable Daily Intake for added colours (below 5%), even in high consumers .
With these figures, there is no health and safety concerns for Australian children from dietary exposure to added colours. 
There is a lot of available research supporting both sides of the argument. However, at this point, no connection can be made between the consumption of food colours/ preservatives and behavioural alterations in children.
Although there is no link, it is still possible in rare cases that a child may be sensitive to colourings and preservatives. In this case, alterations in behaviour could be experienced. However, it is important to remember that intolerances to other natural food chemicals can also cause mood changes – not additives alone.
Avoiding all food colourings and preservatives can sometimes make shopping, cooking and meal preparation slightly more tough and more expensive. Therefore children who don’t appear to have sensitivity to additives should not need to avoid them, unless this is the personal preference of your family.
Remember though, products containing lots of artificial food colours aren’t always the healthiest options anyway due to other factors such as sugar, fat and energy content e.g. lollies. The less processed your food is, the better it will likely be for you!
Further information about artificial food colours
For more information, see my blog on ‘Food additives’ or ‘Artificial sweeteners’.
- Food Advisory Committee review paper
- This link provides a list of the clinical trials reviewed by the FDA
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This article was written by our dietitian Belinda Elwin who is a Dietitians Association of Australia member and Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist.
If you have questions about food additives or if you want healthy eating advice, Contact us today!
1. Button P. Monday’s Medical Myth: Food Additived Cause Childhood Behavioural disorders. The Conversation. June 2012.
2. McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, Crumpler D, Dalen L, Grimshaw K, Kitchin E, Lok K, Porteous L, Prince E, Sonuga-Barke E, Warner J, Stevenson J. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet, Vol 370(9598),pp.1560 – 1567, Nov 2007.
3. Millichap J, Yee M. State-Of-The-Art-Review-Article: The Diet Factor in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. J of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Jan 2012, Vol 129(2)pp. 330-337.
4. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Food Colours. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. June 2012. Available from Food Standards Australia New Zealand
5. FDA Food Advisory Committee. Background Document for the Food Advisory Committee: Certified Color Additives in Food and Possible Association with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children. U.S Food and Drug Administration. 30-31 March 2011. FDA