Is Food Coloring Safe for Kids?

From gummy bears to bread, artificial dyes make foods fun — but at what cost?

Do you notice your kiddo gets hyper after eating a cookie coated with bright green frosting and rainbow sprinkles? It’s natural to assume that sugar is the culprit, but research suggests some of the blame belongs to artificial food dyes.

Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, highlights the possible risks associated with food dyes and how to minimize them.

Q: Why should I be concerned about food coloring?

A: Studies have linked artificial food dyes to:

  • Hyperactivity, including ADHD.
  • Behavioral changes like irritability and depression.
  • Hives and asthma.
  • Tumor growth (three of the primary food dyes contain benzene, a known cancer-causing substance).

Q: Are there studies that say artificial food dyes are dangerous?

A: The results are mixed. Some studies show a link between dyes and increased ADHD or hyperactivity in children. An Australian study found 75% of parents noticed an improvement in behavior and attention once the dyes were eliminated.

Researchers also found tumor growth in animals that consumed high doses of food dyes, though it can be hard to translate what this means for kids. Some studies say the small amount of benzene in the dyes can’t possibly pose a high risk.

Currently, the U.S. doesn’t ban any artificial food dyes. (Red Dye #3 was under a partial ban for a short time in 1990). But some countries say there’s enough evidence to justify banning them.

Q: How common are food dyes?

A: Food dyes are everywhere: in taffy, frosting, macaroni and cheese, sports drinks and breakfast cereal. Even some types of bread have food coloring. The list goes on and on.

Q: Should I avoid food coloring? And what steps can I take to stay dye-free?

A: I recommend minimizing food dyes in your kids’ diets. And if there is a cancer risk in your family, I would encourage you to be even more vigilant in avoiding artificial dyes.

These four strategies can help you limit how much artificial food dye your kids consume:

1. Read labels

Shoot for foods that use natural food coloring from fruit and vegetable extracts. Beets, blueberry juice or beta carotene are good alternatives.

Child medications (think liquid cough syrups or chewable tablets) can also contain food dyes, so look for dye-free versions.

2. Go for homemade

You have complete control when you make food yourself. If you need to bring a dessert into school, consider a chocolate chip cookie or a sugar cookie you won’t need to frost. If you have to frost something, choose dyes from a natural food store.

3. Focus on whole foods

Foods that come in a package are processed and almost always contain food dyes. Limit processed foods whenever possible.

4. Emphasize healthy choices

Avoid giving your kids processed foods for as long as possible. Once kids are used to eating these foods, it can be hard to get them off of it.

When you do encounter foods with dyes, talk to your kids about why brightly colored foods may not be the best choice for their bodies. If your kids go to a party, encourage them to choose apple juice over a sports drink or soda. And always model good behavior when you’re around your kids.

Q: How can I know if artificial food dyes affect my kids?

A: You can screen for food dye intolerance at home. Try cutting out all foods with food dyes for a week or two. Hopefully, you’ll notice an improvement in behavior. But you might not realize how dyes affect your kids until you begin to reintroduce foods and see their reactions.