The Impact Of Artificial Food Coloring On Children’s Health
  /   Dr. John Snow

The Impact Of Artificial Food Coloring On Children’s Health

Artificial food colorings have long been a topic of debate. This ongoing discourse involves not only scientists and health professionals but also regulatory authorities and the general public, as they deliberate on the impact of these colorings on human health.

Central to this discussion is the impact on children's health: Do artificial food dyes pose a risk to kids?

For those responsible for children's well-being, such as parents and caregivers, the priority is to ensure their optimal growth and health. Amidst this, concerns have been raised about the possible adverse effects of artificial food colorings, including the potential link to hyperactivity, allergic reactions, and even cancer

Given the diverse range of opinions about artificial food colorings, it's crucial to sift through the evidence and understand the science behind it. This will enable you to make informed decisions for your family's health.

Understanding Artificial Food Coloring

First, let’s define what artificial food coloring is and where it occurs. Artificial food coloring or dyes are synthetic substances added to food and beverages to affect the color only. It’s important to note that they have nothing to do with taste or flavor. 

Artificial dyes are commonly found in foods like: 

  • Candies 
  • Baked goods (cookies, cakes, pastries, etc.) 
  • Some breakfast cereals 
  • Soft drinks and fruit juices
  • Snack foods (including some chips and crackers) 
  • Desserts 
  • Processed meats 
  • Canned soups 
  • Frozen foods 

In the past 50 years, artificial food dye consumption has increased by a whopping 500%. Unfortunately, children are the biggest consumers. 

The first synthetic food dye was discovered back in 1856 using coal tar. In the early to mid-20th century, some artificial dyes were found to contain potentially hazardous substances. Nowadays, synthetic food dyes are made from petroleum. Despite regulatory oversight, artificial food coloring health risks and safety is a topic of ongoing research and debate. 

According to the FDA, artificial color additives are safe when used in line with regulations. However, rules change depending on the country, making the conversation even harder. For instance, Norway and the UK have bans and restrictions on dyes containing azo compounds. Green 3 is banned in Europe but approved by the FDA. Yet, Quinoline Yellow is allowed in the EU but banned in the United States. These discrepancies between governing bodies only aid in the confusion around the true impact of artificial food coloring.

Artificial Food Coloring And Hyperactivity

In the 1970s, Dr. Ben Feingold proposed a hypothesis that there’s a link between hyperactivity and learning problems in children and artificial food additives, including colors. The idea gained traction, leading to several studies exploring the link. 

Here’s what the research says: 

  • An early study in 1978 found no changes in children’s behavior after having artificial dyes. 
  • In 2008, a Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) report concluded that nine artificial dyes approved in the US are likely carcinogenic and cause hypersensitivity reactions and behavioral problems. 
  • Another study found that removing artificial food dyes and a preservative called sodium benzoate from the diet significantly improved hyperactive symptoms in children. 

When it comes to food dyes and ADHD, there is criticism around the methodology that some studies used. For instance, small sample sizes, a lack of distinct diagnosis for ADHD, and the difficulty in assessing dietary intake accurately. There are also individual sensitivities to consider, and how one child may experience noticeable effects and others may not. 

So, in what ways can dyes possibly affect a child’s behavior? 

While the connection between food dyes and children’s health and behavior is not fully understood, here are some possible ways it can have an impact: 

  • Allergic reactions 
  • Neurological sensitivity 
  • Affects the immune system
  • Individual sensitivities 

A recent analysis, reviewing 20 studies conducted between 2000 and 2022, focused on the link between blue food coloring and hyperactivity. The findings suggest that diets containing artificial food dyes are associated with notable increases in ADHD symptoms in children. However, the current body of research, especially regarding specific food dyes and their effects on children, is still insufficient for regulatory authorities to provide definitive conclusions. This ongoing uncertainty contributes to the continued heated debate on this topic.

Artificial Food Coloring And Cancer

The safety of artificial food dyes is controversial, with experts all over the world having different opinions. If you’re wondering if food coloring causes health problems, you’re not alone. 

Decades ago, research found no evidence of cancer-causing effects in Blue 1, Red 40, and Yellow 5. However, a recent study found that Red 40, alongside a high-fat diet, causes DNA damage and chronic inflammation in mice. Several countries state that products containing Red 40 must carry a warning label. However, there is no conclusive evidence that there is a link between artificial food coloring and cancer. 

Extra Notes About Blue 2 and Red 3

Currently, there are just over 40 different synthetic dyes approved for use by the FDA, and only nine of these are allowed in food. 

One of the most controversial dyes is erythrosine, also called Red 3. The FDA decided to restrict Red 3 primarily because of safety concerns. Animal studies suggested that Red 3 could have a potential link to cancer, with an increased risk of thyroid tumors. However, studies on this are not conclusive, and experts still don’t fully understand the possible link between cancer and the effects of food dyes. 

The FDA does not allow the use of Red 3 in cosmetics, and the state of New York is considering banning the use of Red 3 in foods. Red 3 has mostly been replaced by Red 40, but you can still find it in foods like candy, drinks, and popsicles. 

Another area of concern is Blue 2. One study in male rates found that Blue 2 produced a statistically significant increase in tumors, particularly brain gliomas. However, it’s important to say that other studies on Blue 2 report no adverse effects. 

Artificial Food Coloring And Allergies

Certain individuals may experience food dye allergies. Similar to other types of allergies, the response to these colorings varies from person to person.

Research has identified Yellow 5 as a potential trigger for allergic reactions such as hives and asthma symptoms. Notably, people who are allergic to aspirin may have a higher likelihood of being allergic to Yellow 5.

Allergic reactions to artificial food dyes can be mild or severe. Potential side effects of dyes in foods and allergic reaction symptoms include: 

  • Headaches 
  • Hives
  • Itchy skin 
  • Swelling of the face
  • Throat tightness
  • Rapid heart rate 
  • Dizziness
  • Low blood pressure

It’s important to monitor symptoms and adjust your child’s diet accordingly. At the same time, your healthcare provider can run tests and offer guidance on the best way to support your child’s health.

Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are the most commonly consumed dyes and are three times as likely to cause allergic reactions

Should Your Children Avoid Food Coloring?

Unfortunately, artificial food dye consumption is rising, especially among children. Processed and packaged foods are convenient and have a longer shelf life, making them a popular choice for busy households. To maintain visual appeal, these types of products use artificial food dyes. Unusually bright and colorful products can make foods more appealing, especially for a younger audience. Sadly, many products that contain artificial food dyes are marketed toward children. Think colorful and fun snacks, candies, and cereals. 

Safety concerns surrounding artificial food dyes are scary for parents and caregivers. While the potential to cause cancer is the most concerning issue, there is no conclusive evidence on the link between artificial food dyes and cancer.  

As shown, several studies suggest that artificial food dyes could increase hyperactivity in children, with some individuals being more sensitive than others. 

In addition to the concerns around artificial food coloring, keep in mind that artificial colors don’t add any nutritional value, and by avoiding or limiting them, you automatically reduce processed and packaged foods in your child’s diet. Processed foods generally have extra fat, salt, and sugar to enhance flavor. Research links a higher consumption of ultra-processed foods to lower levels of physical fitness in children and increased incidence of overweight, obesity, and diabetes. 

Looking to cut out processed foods for the family but not sure where to start? Read our guide for kids and parents. 

Focus On Nutritious Whole Foods

Artificial food coloring only makes a difference to the color of foods. It has nothing to do with nutritional value; it simply makes foods look more attractive. 

One of the biggest culprits of artificial food colors is processed foods, which bring a whole host of adverse effects on health. But it’s not just the grocery store parents need to be wary of; some children’s vitamins even contain artificial food dyes. Instead of using artificial dyes, brands such as Hiya harness the vibrant colors of natural antioxidants like beetroot, turmeric, and spirulina, prioritizing natural ingredients for health-conscious parents. 

By including healthy whole foods and clean, dye-free vitamins, you automatically remove a lot of artificial colors, helping your child to get their essential nutrients without unnecessary junk. At the same time, you can include foods at mealtimes that help your child hit their recommended daily intake for nutrients that support health, growth, and development. 

Decreasing the number of foods containing artificial colors helps limit or even avoid potentially harmful food dye side effects for your family. Nutritious whole foods are tasty, naturally dye-free, and full of vitamins and minerals children need to thrive. 

If you prefer a more natural approach, remember to start small so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. Over time, you can begin to eliminate artificial food dyes from your child’s diet. By learning what names to look out for on the ingredients list and common sources to avoid in your weekly shop, you can create a library of dye-free meals your kids will love.


Immune reactivity to food coloring | NIH

Synthetic food colors and hyperactivity in children: a double-blind challenge experiment | Pediatrics 

The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children | NIH

DIET AND NUTRITION: The Artificial Food Dye Blues | NIH

A Review of the Association of Blue Food Coloring With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms in Children | Cureus 

Food additives | Food Standards Agency  

Color Additives Questions and Answers for Consumers

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The synthetic food dye, Red 40, causes DNA damage, causes colonic inflammation, and impacts the microbiome in mice | NIH

Toxicology of food dyes | NIH

Chronic toxicity/carcinogenicity study of FD & C Blue No. 2 in rats

Applications of food color and bio-preservatives in the food and its effect on the human health | Food Chemistry Advances 

Are highly processed foods bad for children? | The American Society for Nutrition 

Food colours and hyperactivity | NHS

Color Additives History | FDA

Diet and hyperactivity: is there a relationship | NIH 

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Senate Bill S6055A | The New York State Senate

Color Additive Status List | FDA    

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