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Is Food Coloring Really That Bad for my Child? Is Red Dye 40 Bad For You?

If you are looking for information on how bad red dye 40 is, this likely is not the first article you are reading. There is information all over the internet about whether or not red dye 40 is bad. Specifically, the concerns about red dye 40 are about hyperactivity in children. So what is the deal with that? Do you need to be worried about red dye 40 for your children? Is food coloring really that bad?

child jumping on trampoline

What Does the Research Say: Is Red Dye 40 Bad?

It is important to point out that a lot of what is written about the bad effect of red dye 40 for hyperactivity in children is anecdotes and case reports. What that means is that people who have observed a link between children consuming red dye 40 and hyperactivity have written about it those particular cases.

Based on that, there has been some, but not much, more rigorous research on this topic. Still even these studies have many limitations, such as small size, behavior observations based on report rather than objective measures, and studies looking at a mixture of food dyes, not just red dye 40, making it hard to guess what is causing the behavior outcomes.

Still, these limited studies sometimes show a link between red dye 40 and hyperactivity in children. Based on this, some researchers hypothesized that in some children, red dye 40 does impact hyperactivity, and in other children, it does not. They looked at genetics to see if there was a link between genes and red dye 40 having a bad effect on hyperactivity. This short study found that there are some genes that are linked to red dye 40 having that bad effect on children's hyperactive behavior.

How to Use this Information About Red Dye 40 and Hyperactivity

This information can be used as an adjunct to other appropriate ADHD or hyperactivity interventions. Avoiding red dye 40 won't treat or cure ADHD, and eating red dye 40 is not known to cause ADHD. If your child has ADHD or hyperactivity, discuss with your pediatrician or child psychiatrist how to best address it. They may advise behavioral strategies, they may advise therapy, and they may advise medication.

Once that treatment is in progress, it is not unreasonable to trial avoiding red dye 40. Give it a try for a week or so, and see if you notice a change in your child's behavior. If your child's behavior is markedly improved, you child is one of the few for whom red dye is particularly bad for hyperactive behavior. Many parents will notice either no change in their child's behavior or be unsure if they notice a change. If that is the case, you can make a decision if it is worth it for yourself and your child to avoid red dye 40.

Nutrition for ADHD

There is no specific ADHD diet. Children (and adults!) with ADHD need good nutrition just like anyone else. Foods that contain red dye 40 are processed foods that are often high in added sugar and low in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. Any person who wants to optimize nutrition can choose to eat more fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and fish. Completely avoiding a particular food additive is usually not necessary. Focusing on what foods can be added in can be impactful at improving nutrition.

More importantly, for kids with ADHD, focusing on food skills can have a longer term impact than avoiding a specific additive. Many children with ADHD struggle with executive functioning skills--planning, preparing, and following through on tasks. These skills are very necessary with planning meals, grocery shopping, and preparing food. Focusing on improving those skills when your child is young will prepare them to have good nutrition when they are older and becoming more independent.

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