You are what you eat. I know I’ve written that before and I’m pretty sure we’ve all
heard that old adage, but it is true. Many of our modern day food offerings have
paragraphs of biochemical sounding ingredients which are fairly unrecognizable.
Most of them boil down to technical names for items already in our kitchens, but
some of them are a little different. Some of them are quite easy to read, for
example FD&C Yellow No. 5. But, what exactly is Yellow No. 5?
Artificial Food Colors (AFC’s) are products developed to help food items retain their
shelf value. They aid in proper color retention, enhancing colors already found in the
product or creating a new color (think popsicles that are bright red, blue, etc.). I
even found AFC’s in black licorice, which I would not have anticipated.
With some parents reporting improved behavior in their children diagnosed with
mood disorders upon removal of the AFC’s, I wanted to do some research for myself.
I was skeptical but decided it was worth a look if nothing else. The rest of this article
details what I found.
There are two types of food dyes acknowledged by the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA), certifiable and other food dyes. The certifiable category
includes all of the man made, mostly petroleum derived food colors that we know as
FD&C Red, Yellow and Blue followed by a number. Sometimes you will see it as just
the Color and Number. These have been approved by the FDA as having a
“reasonable certainty of no harm,” if used as intended. So, they are pretty sure
nothing bad will happen if you use these the right way. Hmmm, reasonably sure . . .
the website does state if a substance has been shown to cause cancer in rats it isn’t
approved for human consumptions. Well, that’s good.
The other category deals with dyes derived from plants, animals or minerals and the
testing for those is to be sure the manufacturer of the food item is using what they
are claiming to be using. For this they use batch tests: before the substance is
added to an item a sample is sent to be tested to ensure it is safe. Some of these
items would be listed as annatto (plant) or beet juice (plant). There are quite a few
The FDA acknowledges there have been some problems with approved AFC’s in the
past; most notably with Yellow No. 5, also known as tartrazine. They mention some
people having a rare reaction to the ingredient, but stress its rarity. There are some
studies to suggest otherwise.
Parents of children with mood disorders have taken part in myriad studies over the
last 20 or so years and analysis of these studies’ findings suggest a strong
correlation between dietary irritants and behavior problems. AFC’s have been
implicated in many of these studies. While correlation does not equate with
causation, studies performed on rats have shown definite links between AFC’s and
increased anxiety and depression in rats.
The best study to illustrate the effect of AFC’s on children was SO & SO, 1994. They
used parental reports of behavior changes throughout a well designed study.
Parental reports seem to be more reliable than lab assistant, clinician or teacher
reports since effects of the AFC’s could range from immediate to a few days later.
Parents also seemed to be more in tune with their child’s behaviors and
idiosyncrasies. Most of the children showed significant deterioration of behavioral
control after eating the AFC’s or other dietary irritant along with improved behavior
upon withdrawal of the irritant. The amounts of the AFC’s used in the study were far
below the dose children would receive eating a regular day of typical western food.
The rats were given moderate and high doses of Yellow No. 5 throughout the study
performed by SO & SO, year. The rats exhibited progressively worse behavior
(higher anxiety and greater depression) with increasing doses of the irritant. Now
I’m not so sure I want to be eating these myself.
A friend of mine had been having trouble with her daughter behavior wise and had
enlisted the help of a therapist. When the therapist became stumped as to the girl’s
issues the parents began looking at every aspect of their lives. They ate healthfully,
exercised, spent time together as a family and followed the therapists advice. They,
too, were stumped.
They had had a few days of relative calm with regard to their daughter’s moods
when they attended a birthday party. There was plenty of cake with pink frosting as
well as the other accompaniments of a child’s party. The child who had been able to
control her moods and behavior suddenly turned into a tiny tornado of emotions and
out bursts. The only thing that had been different was the cake and candy. Could it
be the food dyes? Maybe the sugar? The family cut out the food dyes since they had
already eliminated most added sugars.
The results for this family were astounding. Their daughter no longer has major
outbursts, is no longer moody and the therapist has even noted an improvement in
her ability to adapt to therapies. This change occurred from August to November of
one year. Four months. New young lady, new family.
Many of the children involved in these anecdotal incidences and the reviewed
studies have already been diagnosed with mood disorders of some type, but the
rats had not. I am starting to wonder if there is a family medical history of mood
disorders (anxiety, depression, ADD, ADHD), could AFC’s affect these children, too?
Is it just developing children? What about adults?
Most of us would readily admit we would not ingest petroleum products, right? But,
if you really investigate the items in your cupboard, unless you are already very
conscientious, you will most items have petroleum products listed. Again, my black
licorice had Blue and Yellow AFC’s. We already use mostly all natural product or
cook and bake from scratch at our house, but I am probably going to look into
removing all AFC’s from our diet as well. If you are interested in this kind of a
change, feel free to email me or check out my blog post about organic and natural
candies for this Christmas.
Bottom line for us? A “reasonable certainty of no harm,” might not be good enough
for my family when it comes to artificial products (minus maybe some Tylenol here
and there). Thanks for reading. I encourage you to leave comments regarding your
experience or questions!
Schab DW, Trink NT. Do Artificial Food Colors Promote Hyperactivity in Children with Hyperactive Syndromes? A Meta-Analysis of Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trials. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 2004:25(6):423-434.
El-lethey HS, Kamel MM. The Potential Health Hazard of Tartrazine and Levels of Hyperactivity, Anxiety-Like Symptoms, Depression and Anti-social behavior in Rats. Journal of American Science. 2011;7(6):1211-1218.
Boris B, Mandel FS. Foods and Additives are common causes of the attention deficit hyperactive disorder in children. Annals of Allergy. 1994;73:462-467.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”Color Additives.” http://www.fda.gov/ForIndustry/ColorAdditives/default.htm. Silver Spring, MD. Updated November 5, 2013. Accessed 9 NOV 2013.