Experts Link Food Dyes To Behavioral Problems In Kids

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As busy parents, we don’t always make the healthiest choices for ourselves but when it’s meal time, we try to make the best choices for our kids.

We check food labels for whole grains, less fat and low sugar but something extra, added to everything from cereal to fresh fruit, could be causing behavior problems in children. Concerns about food dyes led manufacturers in other countries to change their recipes, but they’re still sold here.

Kelly King is certain of the difference food dyes make in her 6-year-old daughter Kendall.

“She’s always had a lot of energy,” King said.

Doctors diagnosed Kendall with ADHD last year and put her on powerful drugs.

“We were going to need to medicate her all day, then give her another pill at 4 p.m., then give her a medicine so she could sleep. It just didn’t feel right to me,” King said.

A few months ago, the King’s heard about a possible connection between dyes and hyperactivity. Within weeks of taking dyes out of her diet, Kendall didn’t need the medication.

“We’ve had amazing results.  She’s like a whole new child and she’s herself again,” King said.

King said it’s been much easier to find dye-free food than she thought. With what they used to spend on medication for Kendall, the cost of food has evened out.

Taking dyes out of kids’ diets is a big part of Dr. Arlen Lieberman’s practice.

“It’s definitely a big factor in what I look at when I talk to the parents is what kind of food are you giving your kid?” Lieberman said.

At the Golden Valley clinic he shares with his daughter, they’ve seen again and again the change food dyes make.

“They have risks and they have no benefit really the only benefit that they have is the look,” Dr. Krystle Lieberman said.

Food manufactures in the U.S. can use up to nine dyes in food. The dyes Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 make up 90 percent of the market and cause the most concern.

Take a shopping trip and you’ll see them everywhere. They’re listed on a bright cereal box, even the more covert packaging of a pickle jar. From cough syrup to toothpaste, and waffles to crackers.

Synthetic dyes are sometimes even sprayed on fresh fruits to sharpen their shades.

Dr. David Wallinga at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said he believes the science is there for customers to be concerned. He cites more than two dozen studies that point to problems.  Most were done decades ago while we eat more dyes than ever before, a 5-fold increase in 50 years.

Wallinga said dyes mess with our metabolism. The yellow dyes deplete zinc levels enough in some kids, he said, to cause hyperactivity.

An added concern: The chemicals come from petroleum products that Wallinga said have shown carcinogenic to cause effects.

“There is no necessary reason to put petroleum dyes in food.  Period,” Dr. Wallinga said.

Countries across Europe have already responded to the controversy. For the most part, you won’t find the dyes in food on grocery store shelves. The European Union requires foods using synthetic dyes to carry a warning label.

Rather than scaring customers away, American companies like Kellogg’s, General Mills and Kraft did away with the synthetic dyes overseas.

“Why shouldn’t American consumers be treated with the same respect, and conversely, why should the U.S. be the dumping ground for worrisome food dyes?” Dr. Wallinga asked.

The FDA took up the issue last spring. Its scientists found that dyes could affect children who already have behavioral disorders. But the agency said most children won’t see a reaction. So the FDA voted against putting warning labels on foods, but it believes more research is still needed.

Some grocery chains, like Whole Foods, have made the decision themselves and won’t sell synthetic dyes.

Ted Labuza, a professor of Food and Science at the University of Minnesota, said he believes it comes down to customers making choices. While other countries operate out of precaution, he sees our system as limited.  In this country, food additives can’t be tested on people so scientists have to rely on several different factors for study results.

“There’s no way to be 100 percent safe. You can’t test your way to safety. You can’t inspect your way to safety,” Labuza said.

One potential solution to the food dye question is being developed in a small lab in St. Paul and planted in the ground in southwest Minnesota.

The company Suntava started as a way to breed corn resistant to common pests.  Scientists found something much more powerful in their purple corn, a compound called anthocyanin with more antioxidants than blueberries.

Suntava CEO Bill Petrich said it’s a huge find.

“I believe this is a game-changing technology that can positively affect many lives for years to come, ” Petrich said.  “I think the market is global, it’s not just U.S. it’s global.”

The research led to the realization of the corn’s potential as a natural color.  Natural food colors can be as much as 20 times more expensive to produce.

The Hopkins School District decided it was worth the investment.  It’s taken dramatic steps to get dyes out of its schools.

Barb Mechura, the school’s nutrition director, said it’s changed their approach to cooking.

“Our kitchen looks a little differently because we need additional equipment for scratch cooking,” Mechura said. “We don’t need as much room in the freezer right now because we don’t have all the frozen, manufactured foods.”

Cooks are constantly checking labels for food dyes and if they can’t find a natural substitute, it won’t be served.

An important part of the curriculum for all of their kids includes reading food labels. For the last few years, the district’s lunchrooms have been considered leaders in school nutrition. After making many changes, teachers said they see fewer outbursts in class.

“It makes sense that if we’re going to put a lot of synthetic and artificial stuff into it our cells aren’t going to have the energy they need to create a healthy body, a healthy brain, help us be happy,” Mechura said.

In a statement, the FDA said “Approved food color additives are considered safe. There has not been a cause and effect relationship established between color additives and hyperactivity in children.”

A spokesperson from General Mills said “We comply with all regulations where we do business and monitor global regulatory developments. Differences around the globe in product formulation have long existed, and are due to different laws or consumer preferences.”

More from Liz Collin
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  • April Utz Mendenhall

    I used to think the same thing (poor parenting causing behavior problems). My children, up until 5 days ago, drove me crazy every waking moment. They were fighting with each other and making everyone around them miserable. Nothing I did as a parent was helping. I thought I was a failure as a parent. But, we’ve been dye-free for 6 days now, and the change in them is amazing! My kindergartener was getting into trouble daily at school and had been diagnosed with ADHD (another thing I thought was from poor parenting). Since school started this fall, he’d only had a handful of “perfect” behavior days at school. But, the last 3 days in a row at school, he has had “perfect” behavior days (did not break any class rules)! I used to be a big skeptic, one of the biggest ones. But, until you’ve walked in the shoes that these families have and seen the changes in your child, then don’t be placing blame anywhere.

    • David Wallinga, MD

      Wow, this is very gratifying to hear. So many things in our childrens’ environment get conflated in terms of their effect on behavior, it’s often hard to tease out one particular. With an ellmination diet, it’s nice that you can see such an immediate difference in your child. @HFAction

  • Sgt

    My mom put me on a additive free diet back in the early 70s . She removed Food coloring & other aditives. from my diet. & when I went to school I brought a sack lunch.

    • Willow

      This story is missing the result part.

  • BRS

    It’s always hilarious to hear from people who want to blame parents. When you have seen the severe neurological impact of these toxins on an innocent child and then seen the amazing difference as that same child “comes to life” with the simple subtraction of synthetic food dye, you will no longer judge or scoff. I don’t need your approval to know removing dyes SAVED MY CHILD and SAVED OUR FAMILY. My child was never diagnosed with ADHD, in fact, we had no attention issues at all. Our issue was out of control tantrums that even he said he had no way to stop. He could not transition from one activity to another without a meltdown — it had nothing to do with being a good listener or “doing as he was told.” Believe me, as his parents, we put enough blame on ourselves without the help of strangers judging us, too. Three years into a dye free diet, our family is healthy and happy — and most likely also reducing our risk for dementia and certain cancers as well. And there’s nothing “easy” about raising children without dye in a world that bombards them with it in everything from toothpaste to popcorn.

  • KS

    I also am sick of hearing people blame “poor parenting”. I used to literally make myself sick over my son’s behavior. Nothing we tried helped him, and we tried everything. He was diagnosed ADHD and depressive because he was so hard on himself over the fact that he couldn’t control himself sometimes. We spent a small fortune on meds for him, and they did help to a degree, but changing his diet has made all the difference in the world for my whole family. Don’t judge unless you’ve been through it.

  • Ellen

    It is a wonderful thing that these folks were able to get their child off
    the adhd meds! In all likelihood the dyes contributed to the problem,
    but more likely the culprit was the SUGAR that was an ingredient in
    the dyed foods.

    It would be nice if there was an in-depth study to discover whic is
    worse…the dyes or the excessive sugars in cereals, drinks etc.

    • kim

      At least sugar is a real food found in nature. Dyes made from petroleum were never created to be consumed by anyone. My money is on the dyes being worse, because they are not food.

      • Jen

        There are a lot of good studies showing that dyes trigger ADHD symptoms.

  • BRS

    Ellen: Many children who react to dyes also react to chemicals such as HFCS (high fructose corn syrup/processed sugar). But we have heavily researched dyes (which are BANNED in other countries) and it makes me bristle to imply that all our hard work is incorrect. I can give my child sugar — I prefer raw, organic. He is fine. I give one Dum Dum lollipop full of dye and he reacts neurologically within 30 minutes. I know what is poisoning my child. That said, research indicates that indeed sugar feeds cancer cells. Obviously, cutting out sugar is a good thing.

  • BRS

    PS. Sugar is a natural food (if we leave it alone.)
    Synthetic dyes are PURELY man made, petroleum products. Would you let your child drink motor oil? No? Then why let him eat dye?

  • John Norland

    It’s possible to make food without these dyes. Most homemade food is healthy, even with the chemicals used in their production, still there is nothing better than the food one grows and preserves for themselves. Not only does our health improve with “made from scratch, organic when possible ” food choices, but it is better for weight control as well. All our fascination with quick instant food, and eating everything out of a box on a run comes with a terrible price.

  • Natural e GREEN

    The FDA is pathetic and all those government agencies are so inefficient at doing what they are supposed to – it’s ridiculous!

    Many manufacturers have different recipes depending on geographic market. Take J&J for example, whose baby shampoo and products have the 1,4 Dioxane taken out for European and Eastern markets but not here in the Americas. Disgusting.

    The correlation between chemicals in our foods & personal care products and ADHD and other ailments like cancer is obvious. You don’t need billions of dollars and years of research to convince me there is a relationship. “More research is needed” says the FDA, yet they still allow the product(s) to be sold & consumed. Yeah, that’s really responsible isn’t it? Kinda like when it was said cigarette smoking was ok and not harmful to health and then….ooops! Guess we were wrong.

    Consumers have to educate themselves and start using their own judgement – not relying on the government. Go natural as much as you can, organic where you can and learn as much as you can and pass it on to your children – its’ their generation that will have to figure this all out and force the government to enforce the rules we already know should exist.

  • Merri-Sue Swart

    So glad I received this post in my facebook this morning! I, too have a son with ADHD but I’m trying to control with diet. This is one of the many reasons why I joined up with Wildtree in selling food products that are all-natural, no chemicals, dyes or preservatives! Check out my website for more information:

  • Natural e GREEN

    Side note: My son used to be on the harsh pharmaceuticals (because I couldn’t find anything else that worked that was natural) and they messed him up big time. Then I did find some natural alternatives that worked, so in addition to modifying his diet, he takes natural supplements and is a B student in Grade 8 this year. He also uses organizational skills but he does pretty good and the best thing is, he’s learning to DEAL with his ADHD and manage it himself, not just rely on popping pills forever.

    When he’s an adult, he can do what he wants. He’s learning now that if he has too much sugar/junk food, he needs to drink LOTS of water to flush it out. At his last class party they had tons of junk food, instead of pigging out, he had 2 treats then lots of water because he felt the difference and didn’t like it. It’s about teaching our kids to make the smart choices, no matter what meds they are taking.

  • Sean Kelly

    This story cited practitioners, nutritionists, food scientists, agricultural experts but NOT ONE CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST OR CHILD PSYCHIATRIST who have done research that links dyes to behavior. This was not a news story. A NEWS STORY would cite RESEARCH not just personal opinion and the latest cause du jour for behavior problems.

    • Marcia

      You can see a lot good research at the website the Feingold Association Cllick on “scientific studies.”

    • Marcia

      Go to the websiite of the Feingold Association and click “Scientific Studies.” Pllenty of studies there.

  • This is how they thank us

    It’s not just kids that are harmed by these dyes and other additives. I can tell within a short time if I’ve accidentally eaten something that has dye in it, especially yellow #5. It’s in everything, even soap, shampoo, lotion and PET FOOD. Americans made these companies who they are and this is how they say thanks to us. Real nice. They make safe products for other countries and give us toxic junk. Look at soda’s(just one example of products), we are forced to drink high fructose corn syrup while our southern neighbors in Mexico get SUGAR in GLASS bottles. We’re told that Mexican citizens are poor in their country and come here illegally so they can actually make some money and we’re told that using sugar and glass bottles in American’s soda is too expensive, well, if sugar and glass bottles are too expensive for us, then how can Mexican citizens afford those sodas? If you want a soda that is made with sugar in a glass bottle, you have to shop the section in your grocery store that has the foods for our Mexican citizens. They even have chocolate ice cream sauce that is made with sugar, not hfcs, in that section.

  • Kelcie Quiel

    Thank you WCCO for doing this story!!! My son was diagnosed with ADHD last year and has been on Adderall XR since. Although the Adderall helps him out dramatically there’s also side effects…in my son it’s severe constipation!!!! Thankfully that’s the only side effect for him but that’s plenty to deal with!

    After watching your report on Red and Yellow dye’s I’m definitly going to take them out of his diet to see if it’ll make a difference in him. Thankfully the cupboards are just about bare anyhow and I’ve got to go grocery shopping anyhow. lol

    • Dr. Krystle Lieberman

      That is wonderful to hear! If you would like any help with this let us know! I am one of the doctors on the segment and love working with kids! You can check out our website at or call me at 763-541-1280.

    • Kate

      Um….the Adderall most likely contains dyes:0

  • Kelcie Stumbo Quiel

    Thank you WCCO for doing this story!!! My son was diagnosed with ADHD last year and has been on Adderall XR since. Although the Adderall helps him out dramatically there’s also side effects…in my son it’s severe constipation!!!! Thankfully that’s the only side effect for him but that’s plenty to deal with!

    After watching your report on Red and Yellow dye’s I’m definitly going to take them out of his diet to see if it’ll make a difference in him. Thankfully the cupboards are just about bare anyhow and I’ve got to go grocery shopping anyhow. lol

  • BRS

    Sean: Perhaps you missed the part where these same dyes come with black box warnings and are essentially banned in most of Europe due to YEARS of research. Do a Google search or logon to Feingold: the scientific research is PLAIN AS DAY. The FDA’s pockets are lined by big drug and food companies; the FDA has been presented the same research and decided it is OK to poison the American people in the name of profit. Don’t believe me? Do a little research not only on food dyes, but Monsanto and genetically modified food. Or continue to believe that just because it’s sold in a grocery store it’s safe and deal with the consequences later. I’ll continue to save my child’s brain cells.

  • TLJ

    Thank you for doing this story. My son was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome last Feb. 2011 and would have as many as 72 eye tics while reading his first grade story. As a first grade teacher so I knew I needed to do something. After a lot of research, I was led to the Feingold Program. My son started the Feingold Program in April 2011 and he is doing wonderful and is virtually tic free. I wish those in the medical field would consider a change in diet vs medication when it comes to children with neurological disorders. Those in the medical field shrug off diet as a factor and it frustrates me. I know for a fact eliminating synthetic colors, flavors, sweetners; preservatives BHA, BHT, TBHQ, and foods containing salicylates work. I have seen it in my own child and in the children in my classroom. I teach my students about food dyes. They really care and try to make wise choices in the lunchroom and at snack. Please continue to push this. After all, we have seen an increase in ADD, ADHD, autism and other neurological problems over the past 30 years and ironically about 30 years ago the FDA approved more food dyes. Other countries are banning harmful foods, why isnt the US?

  • Nicki Blowers

    Our son is now almost eleven years old. When he was in kindergarten, we removed all food coloring from our home after he was essentially kicked out of the charter school that we had him enrolled in due to his behavior. After we cleaned the cupboards and replaced the food with WHOLE FOODS (meals are basic meat, vegetable and occasionally a starch such as bread or rice, etc, fruits and veggies for snacks, etc….lots of options once you get the hang of reading labels and are willing to do the extra work occasionally to prepare the foods!) we had a whole new household. Both of our kids are much calmer and more relaxed. Our daycare provider removed dyes from her home as well and saw dramatic results in all of the children in her care. I think schools should all follow what the schools in the story did and go back to all scratch cooking. Also, I have mailed letters and emailed most national companies such as General Mills, Kellogg’s, Betty Crocker, Kraft, etc and many have replied much the same as General Mills did to WCCO. However, the more letters they receive, the more they will give attention to the issues. State your preference by purchasing from the companies that will refuse to use all the additives to save a buck!!

    • DealPen

      When I met the founders that developed the corn that Suntava was incorporated to commercialize, I did extensive research on synthetic dyes. I have TRIED to keep all RED40 out of the diets of my children. It is absolutely CRIMINAL what the food companies get away with. I understand why the FDA thought a touch of colorant from an unnatural source like coal tar was probably not harmful, but several decades ago they did not envision a day where RED40 is in everything, and in many cases, in HIGH CONCENTRATIONS. And where is it most harmful in concentrations? CHILDREN. Fruit juices, yogurts, candies, cereals – all the things that kids eat constantly. It has been a battle for my wife and I to find non-polluted food for our 3 kids. The one that irks me the most is the blatant mislabeling of kids yogurts – like TRIX stands out. They will use a word like “healthy” “natural” yet its full of synthetic dyes. Shame on Kraft, General Mills, Nestle, Mars, Coca-Cola etc – ALL of these companies know there are healthy, natural alternatives. #BANRED40!
      Patrick E. Donohue
      Eden Prairie, MN

      • Jen

        Red 40 is made from petroleum but so are the other 6 artifiicil dyes. They need to be avoided too. It would be great if WCCO would do a feature on the Feingold Association.– it helps families deal with the problem that dyes, artificial flavorings, etc. create in our kids.

        • DealPen

          Agree. We need a rallying point around scientific evidence like we clearly have with RED40. Once we have national attention, we can clearly demonstrate that ALL of the artificial dyes need to be BANNED! See BAN_RED40 open group on Facebook and use #BANRED40 on Twitter. Spread the word!

  • BAH

    Please read Dr. Feingold’s Why Your Child is Hyperactive. It was written in the 1970s and positively effected many of us back then when our parents put us on color-free diets. This isn’t new; we’ve known about it for about 40 years.

  • Markey

    Dr. Feingold’s book has a lof of good information but it is out of date (published in 1974). The book that updates it is Why Can’t My Chiild Behave by Jane Hersey. You can read Part One on the Feingold website It really is a wonderful bookl

  • martha

    Thank you for bringing attention to this issue.

    Our experiences with a son who experienced severe night terrors until we removed artificial dyes from his diet prompted us to complile information, resouces, and other materials at For more information please visit us.


  • DealPen

    Join BAN_RED40 open group on Facebook


    Use #BANRED40 on Twitter.

    Please Spread the Word!

  • Dr. Krystle Lieberman

    If anyone has any further questions about this segment or would like some help with their kids please give us a call! We would be happy to do everything we can to help you! You can check our website out at or call us as 763-541-1280
    Dr. Arlen and Dr. Krystle

    • David Wallinga, MD

      Really, using a blog to market your business?

  • Healthy Food Action

    David Wallinga will be moderating a webinar for us tomorrow (Feb. 8 at 11:00 a.m.l) on this very topic: “Driven to Distraction: Food, Chemicals, and Child Behavior. Go to to read more and register for the free webinar.

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