Our environment and food chain has never been more corrupted, containing thousands of pollutants that are toxic to the brain, impacting learning, memory, mood and cognition.

Whilst organophosphate pesticides, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), combustion-related air pollutants, lead, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls and phthalates are receiving tremendous attention from newly emerging environmental health groups like TENDR,[1] there should be equal concern for our ongoing exposure to artificial food chemicals, within the context of overall health and neurological functionality.

Artificial food colorants (dyes) have been a controversial additive for many decades. They are found in thousands of food products ranging from ‘health foods’ like vitamins, supplements, fish (farmed), meat and cheeses, as well as the more obvious brightly colored foods such as cakes, sweets, beverages, sports drinks and even chewing gum.

From a psychological perspective, artificial colorants tap deep into our subconscious attraction to a group of compounds known as phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are non-nutritive plant chemicals that have unparalleled protective, disease prevention and health promotion properties. These natural compounds are what give many plants their distinctive color, smell and taste. The more colorful the fruit or vegetable, the greater the concentration and diversity of phytonutrients, which is possibly why children are intrinsically attracted to brightly colored foods.

In addition, according to a 2008 study by a team of researchers at Stanford University, colorful plant-based foods (veg and fruits) contain more than 100 000 disease-preventing nutrients, which include phytochemicals, bioflavonoids as well as carotenoids. Interestingly, up to 40% of prescription drugs are actually derived from plants.

Whilst artificial colorants capture this intrinsic search for health promotion and vitality, they offer none of the benefits. Rather, 40 years of double-blind studies has reliably shown that they are associated with an array of sinister side effects that range from neurological toxicity to genetic damage and even increase the risk of developing certain cancers.

Food dyes are complex chemicals that were originally derived from coal tar, but more recently from petroleum. They are used to enhance products that naturally would not have color or those products that lose color during processing and storage. Food manufacturers generally prefer artificial colorants to natural alternatives because they cheaper, more stable and considerably brighter.

According to Dr. Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), food dye consumption per person has increased five-fold in the US since 1955, with three dyes - Red 40 (E129/Allura Red), Yellow 5 (E102/Tartrazine), and Yellow 6 (E110/Sunset Yellow) accounting for 90% of the colorants used in foods. This is a clear reflection of our growing appetite for processed and aesthetically alluring foods.

In addition, food colorants contain significant concentrations of several known carcinogens. In a 58-page report on the summary of the literature by the CSPI, dyes were shown to contain a cocktail of harmful chemicals including benzidene, which has been strongly linked to bladder and pancreatic cancers. This compound is so toxic, the dyes containing it are now on the Environmental Protection Agencies list of ‘Chemicals of Concern’.

Another area where artificial food colorants have been receiving a lot of attention is in the cognitive and behavioral space.

The notion that food allergies or hypersensitivities lead to behavioral and learning issues dates back to the 1970s, when Dr. Benjamin Feingold presented an article at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association, proposing that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), pediatric hyperactivity and learning problems were due to certain foods and food additives.

ADHD is a condition affecting areas of the brain that control attention, impulses and concentration. In 2015, the journal Pediatrics published an extensive analysis of 175 research studies on the global prevalence ADHD in children aged 18 and under, finding an overall pooled estimate of 7.2%.

According to a recent report by Dr. Patricia Pastor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of ADHD diagnosis has increased by well over 30% in the last 15 years. The same report found that 11.8% of US children aged 12-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD.

Although our entire future rests on the wellbeing of our children, they are not the only group suffering from concentration, learning and attention compromise. The American Journal of Psychiatry reported the prevalence of adult ADHD in the US is well over 4.4% (14 million adults) and rising.

Twenty years after Dr. Feingold first suggested that artificial additives affect cognition and behavior, pediatrician Dr. Marvin Boris published a study in the Annals of Allergy, which showed that 73 percent of adolescents diagnosed with ADHD responded favorably to an elimination diet that included removing artificial colors.

A decade later, even stronger evidence emerged between the consumption of artificial colorants and exacerbation of ADHD symptoms through an extensive analysis of the literature by a team of researchers at Colombia University. The analysis involved 15 trials and concluded that there is accumulating evidence that neurobehavioral toxicity may be associated with a variety of widely distributed chemicals including artificial food dyes.

According to its authors artificial colorants, ‘promote hyperactivity in hyperactive children, as measured on behavioral rating scales’ and that ‘society should engage in a broader discussion about whether the aesthetic and commercial rationale for the use of artificial food colorings is justified.

The real change in scientific, governmental and public sentiment came from two English studies sponsored by the British government on cross-sections of British children. The studies found that mixtures of dyes (and a food preservative, sodium benzoate) impaired the behavior and cognition of non-hyperactive children of various ages.

An independent scientific committee reviewing the data concluded, ‘the results of this study are consistent with, and add weight to, previous published reports of behavioral changes occurring in children following consumption of particular food additives.’

As a result, the British government instructed the food industry to eliminate six artificial food colorants by the end of 2009. Additionally, the European Parliament passed a law that will require a warning notice on all foods containing one or more of these dyes.

Counter arguments within the medical community do exist and are strongly related to the level exposure. Many of those with opposing views, argue that the amount of artificial colorants in our food chain are not enough to cause a significant reaction within the context of negative behavioral and cognitive outcomes.

According to Laura Stevens from Purdue University, the majority of the studies in the 1970s and 1980s were conducted by giving children 26 mg or less of a single or a combination of food dyes. At these levels, only some children reacted negatively creating inconstant findings and a general apathy amongst medical professionals. Having said this, the groundbreaking Southampton study used only 20-30 mg of artificial colorants in the trial.

Where the medical community does find common ground, is the fact that larger food dye exposures are associated with more defined neurobiological compromise. For example the journal Science published a study that reported that 85% children reacted to 100-150 mg of an artificial food dye mix as reflected by compromised learning potential.

Exposure to these levels was thought to be practically impossible, however, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, children can easily consume 100 mg of colorants in a day and some children are consuming in excess of 200 mg! Hardly surprising when considering that some breakfast cereals contain over 41 mg per serving, some cakes over 55 mg per serving and many sweets in excess of 33 mg per serving. As little as 250ml of a popular orange sports drink contains 22 mg of toxic colorants. According to Lisa Leffet, a senior scientist for the CSPI:

We estimate, using information cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the meta-analysis sponsored by the food industry, that, conservatively, more than half a million children in the United States suffer adverse behavioral reactions from food dyes, with an estimated cost exceeding $5 billion per year—an entirely preventable cost. Removing dyes from the food supply is one of the few public health measures that could be deployed to reduce behavioral problems in children.

In a world with ever-growing demands and high expectations, we can ill afford to expose our families and ourselves to any element that can detract from our achieving our full potential. Based on the current body of evidence, the elimination of artificial colorants and other chemical food additives can be advantageous to health and performance outcomes.

Practical tips:

  • If the food is abnormally brightly colored – avoid it
  • Always check food labels for ‘artificial colorants’
  • Avoid E-codes (on food packaging) ranging from E102-143. Consider that sometimes artificial colorants will be labeled as blue 1, blue 2, green 3, red 40, yellow 5 and so on
  • Avoid processed foods, beverages, chewing gums, confectionaries and sweets unless natural color alternatives are specified
  • Consider that many ‘health foods’ and/or ‘healthier food options’ contain artificial dyes. Some of these include popular vitamins, nutritional supplements, yogurts, farmed fish and even wasabi paste
  • Always opt for natural and fresh ingredients

[1] A collaboration of leading scientists and health professionals who have linked toxic environmental chemicals to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficits, hyperactivity, intellectual disability and learning disorders