Food coloring and hyperactivity?

We just arrived in the U.S. from South Africa. We have two boys -- a six-year-old and a four-year-old. They were normal children until they ate anything containing tartrazine -- then they became hyperactive and had trouble sleeping. So we stayed away from all such foods.

Someone told us that tartrazine is known as yellow #5 here. Is that true? We also see a lot of other yellow and red #'s. Do any of them also contribute to hyperactivity?

Please help!

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Yes, tartrazine is also known as FD & C yellow #5. It has been associated with allergic reactions. For example, in a study published in 1978, 122 patients who had a variety of diagnosed allergic reactions were given 50 milligrams of tartrazine. This dose elicited reactions such as palpitations, weakness, hives and itching in these susceptible individuals; 50 millgrams is a large dose, but could be consumed by someone drinking a few bottles of soda during the day.

This food dye can be found in prepared breakfast cereals, gelatin desserts, dry drink powders, candy, ice cream, spaghetti, bakery products and pudding. It is important to note that there is a connection between people allergic to aspirin and allergic reactions to tartrazine.

There have also been reports of an association of behavioral changes such as restlessness, irritability and sleep disturbances in children, just as you have reported. These reports have been criticized for methodological shortcomings, and perhaps other factors also play into the behavioral changes. Nonetheless, it is a good idea to avoid the dye if such an association is suspected. It is easy to eliminate it from the diet of children since its presence in foods is required to be on the label. Sticking to a diet of only whole, natural foods will help make its avoidance much easier, as it is only present in processed foods.

Although other food dyes and additives have been implicated in hyperactivity, no definitive association has ever been made. It may be that an allergic reaction has been mistakenly diagnosed as a hyperactivity disorder. It is also possible that some children do respond to a diet free of food dyes and synthetic additives. A diet that shuns highly processed foods and relies mainly on fresh, whole natural foods is certainly a good choice for anyone, but a child who is suspected of being sensitive to additives would surely benefit. It may also be that a diet that focuses on whole natural foods has a psychological benefit in that care is being given to the preparation and eating of foods, rather than a reliance on processed "fast" foods. There may be a more relaxed and wholesome attitude that recognizes the vital role that food plays in our health and well-being.

In sum, it seems that among the food dyes, yellow dye #5 has the strongest link to allergic, and possible behavioral, reactions in children. However, any food ingredient, natural or synthetic, has the potential to cause an allergic reaction. If you are concerned that your sons' reaction to yellow #5 may also indicate a susceptibility to other dyes, then you should take precautions to avoid foods that contain them.

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