Does Food Dye Make Kids Hyper? An FDA Panel Will Investigate

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Girl Eating Macaroni and Cheese

Many kids think cheese is naturally orange and strawberry juice a bright red — thanks to a collection of widely used artificial food dyes that a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel (FDA) will now re-examine for safety.

Color additives like quinoline yellow and ponceau 4R have long been deemed safe, but some recent British studies have associated the dyes with hyperactivity in children, prompting the FDA to convene a two-day meeting to discuss the science.

In one 2007 study conducted by the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency, children aged 3, 8 and 9 were given one of three fruit drinks, two of which contained food dyes. Afterward, their behavior was evaluated by parents and teachers, who found that the 8- and 9-year-olds who drank the artificially colored juices — even those who did not have a previous diagnosis of hyperactivity disorder — were more hyperactive than the kids who got the control juice. (More on Time.com: And the Nation’s Fast-Food Capital Is…)

But some pediatric nutritionists remain unconvinced by the results. “At first glance, a study may appear to show an association, but when you consider other important factors that could be responsible for the results, such as gender, maternal education level, pretrial diet and other factors, it becomes impossible to affirm that the change in behavior was due to food colors,” Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Rose F. Kennedy Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told the Washington Post.

Further, a review of the research by European authorities revealed that the data didn’t support a clear link between the dyes and hyperactivity.

But researchers from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), who petitioned the FDA to convene a panel on food dyes in 2008, disagree. “There is convincing evidence that food dyes impair the behavior of some children,” Michael Jacobson, head of the consumer group and a participant of the FDA’s panel hearing, told Reuters.

The European Parliament now requires food products containing the six dyes involved in the British research to carry a label warning that they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children,” the Postreports, but the government still allows the use of other artificial dyes. The restriction has prompted many food manufacturers — including Kellogg and Mars — to replace the problematic color additives with natural dyes made from fruits and vegetables. (More on Time.com: Do the Chemicals That Turn Soda Brown Also Cause Cancer?)

The idea that food dyes may contribute to hyperactivity is not new: a pediatrician named Ben Feingold was the first to raise concerns about the link in the 1970. In 1977, Ralph Nader’s Public Health Research Group petitioned the FDA to ban certain color additives for that reason. CSPI further points out that other color additives that were previously considered safe were later found to be harmful — most notably Red No. 3, which was banned in cosmetics, medicines and other products by the FDA in 1990 because it was linked with cancer in mice; the dye is still used in food, however.

The FDA’s food advisory committee, made up of food scientists, toxicologists, epidemiologists and environmental health specialists, will hold its two-day meeting beginning on March 30 to evaluate the available research and data, as well as to hear testimony from industry and consumer advocates.

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