The Dangers of Synthetic Food Dyes for Neurobehavioral Health

by | May 13, 2024 | Physical Wellness | 0 comments

Recent studies have sparked a growing debate over the impact of synthetic food coloring on children’s behavior and neurological health. While regulatory bodies like the US Food and Drug Administration weigh the evidence, health professionals and researchers advocate for greater scrutiny and awareness regarding the potential risks associated with these additives. As consumers try to navigate this complex landscape, understanding the findings and implications of these studies becomes paramount.

How Food Dyes are Impacting Us

The Journal of Pediatrics published findings revealing that a significant portion of children experienced behavioral improvements after eliminating synthetic food coloring from their diets. The ingestion of tartrazine, also recognized as E102, a synthetic lemon yellow dye, has been linked to behavioral alterations. In certain children, the consumption of tartrazine has also been associated with disruptions in sleep, heightened restlessness and increased irritability. 

Similarly, a 2022 study highlighted a potential link between specific food dyes and attention deficit disorder, prompting concerns about their widespread use in processed foods. More specifically, Blue No. 1 Food Coloring emerged as a significant factor, influencing both hyperactive behavior and neurodevelopment in rats. It also has the capability to permeate the blood-brain barrier, deepening concerns surrounding its neurological impact. A 2012 study showed that Blue Dye No. 1 has a few significant effects on neurobehavioural parameters.

Annette Cillié, an Occupational Therapist specializing in sensory integration, told the Epoch Times about the potential inflammatory effects of processed foods and colorants on the brain. She highlighted that such inflammation could contribute to heightened neurological disorders, including ADHD, inattentiveness, and restlessness. Cillié further elaborated on the detrimental impact of petroleum-based artificial food colorants on health. She underscored the importance of eliminating processed foods and food colorings as a valuable strategy in determining the most effective treatment approach for children facing neurological challenges.

Drawing from her extensive experience working with neurodivergent children in her occupational therapy practice, Cillié frequently incorporates dietary interventions as an initial step in therapy. She recognizes that neurodivergent children often contend with unique structural neurological or gut differences that can impact detoxification processes. She emphasizes the significance of addressing dietary factors contributing to their behavior and concentration challenges.

Cillié stresses the interconnectedness of dietary choices with neurobehavioral outcomes, cautioning against the juxtaposition of sugary breakfast cereals with stimulant medications. While she acknowledges that improper dietary choices are not the sole cause of hyperactivity, she underscores their potential as significant contributing factors. In her approach to treatment, Cillié advocates for holistic strategies that encompass sensory system regulation, dietary adjustments, occupational therapy techniques, lifestyle modifications, and, when appropriate, medication. However, she candidly acknowledges the challenges of maintaining clean diets, particularly within communities where processed snacks and sugary beverages are prevalent—a struggle she personally navigates as a mother of three.

Mary Curristin, a qualified Nutritionist and Wellbeing Coach from ART Health Solutions, told the Epoch Times that processed foods undergo extensive refinement and as a result, typically lack essential nutrients and fibre. This can lead to increased inflammation, oxidative stress, and disruption to the neurotransmitter balance in the brain. Research suggests that these are linked to poorer brain health outcomes, according to her. 

Dr Maricia Coertze, Functional Medicine doctor told the Epoch Times that the exact pathophysiological action of colorants is not well understood, but the effects of some colorants include reduced neuroplasticity neurone growth restriction. This in effect restricts the normal development of the brain which has long-term effects.

The Authorities’ Verdict

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment conducted a systemic review of the research done on neurobehavioral outcome in children and synthetic food dyes. They found that 16 out of 25 studies showed evidence of a positive association between adverse behavioral outcomes in children and food dye exposure.

The NHS has highlighted research indicating a potential correlation between hyperactivity in children and the consumption of certain artificial food colors. In response, they recommend reducing the intake of these colors in children’s diets, particularly if they struggle with concentration or exhibit hyperactive behavior. They report that six colors have been specifically linked to hyperactivity, including E102 (tartrazine), E104 (quinoline yellow), E110 (sunset yellow FCF), E122 (carmoisine), E124 (ponceau 4R), and E129 (allura red). To alert consumers, products containing these colors are required to carry a warning label stating: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

This, however, is not the case in the United States. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a comprehensive review of the effects of food colorants on children’s behavior. Their findings revealed that while some children demonstrate sensitivity to food colors, the majority do not experience adverse effects. During a Food Advisory Committee meeting in 2011, it was concluded that further research into neurobehavioral pathways is necessary to better understand these sensitivities. Professor Emeritus at Ohio State University, Eugene Arnold, emphasized that there is currently no definitive evidence linking food dyes to the causation of ADHD. However, he acknowledged the possibility of certain children exhibiting hypersensitivity to food colors, which could exacerbate inattention.

A significant majority, 79% of the Committee, did vote in favor of recognizing a causal relationship between the consumption of color additives and hyperactivity. A staggering 93% of the Committee voted in favor of conducting additional studies to thoroughly assess the safety of color additives. Despite this, 57% of the Committee voted against implementing additional labeling requirements for foods containing certified food colorants.

What Can We Do?

Lower your exposure to food dyes by avoiding ultra-processed foods and reading food labels, specifically looking out for potentially harmful dyes. Make sure to look out for brands that use natural alternatives to dye in their products. For example, since 2016, Kraft now uses turmeric, annatto and paprika instead of yellow dye in their mac and cheese.

Avoiding harmful substances is a great start, but also focusing on wholesome nutrition could be key in a brain healing journey. Curristin advizes that the choices we make around nutrition play a pivotal role in optimising brain function by providing essential nutrients crucial for cognitive processes, neurotransmitter function, and overall brain health. She advocates for a  well-balanced and unprocessed diet, rich in whole foods to support brain health.

 A focus on omega-3 fatty acids from sources of oily fish like salmon, nuts, seeds, and essential B vitamins, particularly B12 and folate found in animal products and leafy greens, are crucial. Additionally, adequate glucose from carbohydrates keeps us alert and mentally energised, while hydration also plays a vital role in influencing brain function, mood, and energy levels, says Curristin.

A version of this article has been published by the Epoch Times newspaper.

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