Many parents of small children are too young to remember Red Dye No. 2, which was banned from U.S. food products in the 1970s after a furor sparked by Soviet scientists who said it could cause cancer. Red 2 is long gone from U.S. diets — though it’s still present in foods in Europe and elsewhere — but controversy over man-made food dyes continues. In the July issue of Parents magazine, dietitian Sally Kuzemchak describes areas of concern relating to the possible connection between such dyes and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.
The article is far from conclusive. Kuzemchak gives anecdotal examples of parents who describe dramatic improvement in their hyperactive children after snacks containing artificial dyes were removed from their diets — but there are other examples where no improvement occurred, and there are some where children did better on medication.
There seems to be general agreement that some link between dyes and behavior may exist, but its nature is not certain; research is complicated because children seem to have widely varying responses to the same chemical. One theory, she writes, is that “certain kids have a ‘leaky gut’ ” — meaning that dyes leak out of these kids’ digestive systems and are absorbed in unusual amounts.
In 2010, she says, the European Union began requiring foods containing certain dyes to carry a label warning that the dyes “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” — but few products carry the label, since many EU foodmakers have switched to natural dyes. No such labels are required for U.S. items, but Kuzemchak offers ideas for choosing foods — pink lemonade has less dye than berry-red punch — and putting pressure on U.S. manufacturers to go natural.