Last week I received a text from my concerned friend that read, “I need some hard science on how food dye affects kids’ behavior! They are giving Marc candy as a reward in school for good behavior-then he comes home and is off the wall!”
This caused me to drop everything to search for resources that my friend could share with her son’s teachers. I immediately jumped online to PubMed. PubMed is a database I often reference for scientific research. (I have to cap my time there or I can get lost in it for hours!) It was developed and is maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), located at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After searching through some of the research on PubMed, I remembered Dr. Feingold.
Many may have heard of the Feingold diet, a form of elimination diet that removes certain food additives and replaces them with similar foods that are free of those additives. Dr. Feingold reported vast improvement by using this intervention in children struggling with a wide array of symptoms including: migraines, immune disorders, skin reactions, behavioral and cognitive issues, and allergies.
Dr. Feingold actually has a plethora of animal and human research studies on his website that provide support for how food additives, chemicals, toxins, and nutritional deficiencies negatively impact health and contribute to the manifestation of various symptoms. The number of references impressed me. Prior to visiting his website for research, I also found some additional studies and some that overlapped.
One study as far back as 1978 provided some evidence that food dye activated a pathway involved in inflammation and blood clotting in patients suffering from allergies. The abstract states:
Oral administration of 50 mg tartrazine to 122 patients with a variety of allergic disorders caused the following reactions: general weakness, heatwaves, palpitations, blurred vision, rhinorrhoea, feeling of suffocation, pruritus and urticaria. There was activation of the fibrinolytic pathway as shown by reduction of plas-minogen with high pre-kallikrein and low kallikrein values. Reduction in complement activity (CH50) was seen in three out of sixteen reactions. (1)
Animal studies can provide clues to mechanisms of action in how an intervention affects biochemical pathways. Interestingly, a few years later, in 1982, Goldenring, et al. reported their findings that sulfanic acid, a food dye metabolite, affected rodents’ developing nervous systems. (2)
Could this be true for humans and their neurological systems? Specifically, is there an associative or causative link between food dyes and children’s behavior in the literature?
Do Food Dyes Affect Children’s Behavior?
An interesting study abstract I came across was based on the findings of a previous trial that selected 200 children out of 800 with suspected hyperactivity. It was reported that 150 out of the 200 children responded positively to a 6-week diet free of synthetic food coloring. These children were classified as “reactors” to the dietary intervention, meaning the children’s behavior was noted to improve without the chemicals in their food.
Out of these 150 children, the researchers then studied the physical histories of 50 for the basis of a 30 question behavioral assessment. This questionnaire was then used in a trial with thirty-four other children aged 2 to 14 years. Twenty-three were suspected reactors, 11 were uncertain reactors, and 20 were control subjects. These children then took part in a 21-day, double-blind, placebo-controlled, repeated measures study that used each child as their own control. The children received either placebo or one of six doses of the chemical tartrazine. Behavior was recorded at the end of every 24 hours by their parents.
CONCLUSION: Behavioral changes in irritability, restlessness, and sleep disturbance are associated with the ingestion of tartrazine in some children. A dose response effect was observed. (3)
Another 2007 randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, crossover trial tested whether intake of artificial food color and additives (AFCA) affected children’s behavior. A total of 137 3-year-old and 130 8/9-year-old children completed the study:
INTERPRETATION: Artificial colours or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the general population. (4)
Finally, a 2011 article in Nutritional Review assessed the history of artificial food dyes and additives since the early 1970s research by Dr. Feingold. Though there exists some conflicting evidence, the authors reported more recent support for positive associations in children’s behavior with the removal of these chemicals. In fact, in 2009, the British government requested that food manufacturers remove most artificial colors from their products in response to this more current research (emphasis mine):
…in December 2009 the British government requested that food manufacturers remove most artificial food dyes from their products. While these strictures could have positive effects on behavior, the removal of food dyes is not a panacea for ADHD, which is a multifaceted disorder with both biological and environmental underpinnings. (5)
Different Responses, Different Children
I like these studies for one compelling reason. They are a prime example that different triggers affect children differently. I think it’s important with any study to take into account that everyone is an individual. This means beyond the “placebo” effect, controlling for “confounding” variables (characteristics which make study populations differ) is nearly impossible with science.
Does this make research studies less helpful? No! It is a great way to discover associations and mechanisms of action that can be applied to healthcare. However, we need to keep studies in perspective.
It would be a wonderful world if one variable was responsible for every disease. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Everyone has a different cause that brought them to the wellness state they are in, even though the symptoms and the drug used to control them may be the same.
If we could just point at EITHER gluten, GMOS, food dye, vaccines, or diet as THE sole cause, life and medicine would be simpler. The problem is all these factors don’t act in a pre-destined vacuum in which every human being has the same internal environment. Not everyone has identical gut microbiomes, endocrine signaling, immune prowess, and digestive health. “It just ain’t so, Joe!”
How Epigenetics, Prenatal, and Postnatal Environment Modulates Health
Everyone has a different genetic makeup with environmental modulators that are unique to them. For example, one sibling could have had a prenatal environment that resulted from a mom who was calm, ate a nutrient dense diet, avoided chemical exposures, and exercised moderately. The baby was born vaginally, was breast fed for a year, and raised with love.
However, this sibling’s brother was born to a now depleted mom who was stressed due to financial strains from dad losing his job. She had given into cravings for quick energy via Twinkies and Ho Hos and was exposed daily to renovation at work that off-gassed volatile compounds and asbestos. She was too stressed out to have enough progesterone to carry the baby full-term and wasn’t able to deliver vaginally or breast feed longer than 3 months. When this child was born, mom felt depressed.
Do you think the second sibling’s immune, endocrine, digestive, cardiovascular, neurological, and structural development is as robust as child number one?
Which baby would be more prone to get sick with exposure to “germs” or be at risk for obesity (6) due to a suboptimal microbiome from chronic antibiotic use (7) and the various stressors discussed? (Answer- sibling 2 again!)
As you can tell, it’s not just about genetics but all the epigenetic factors that modulate how health outcomes and different triggers manifest.
Optimizing Brain Health and Behavior in Children (and Grown Ups)
The good news is we can make choices to modulate our internal environment positively through the following means:
- Food choices
- Lowering stress hormones & inflammatory thoughts
- Proper, quality, individualized supplemental support
- Space for restoration and rest
- Capacity to remove harmful substances
In my blog on Saratoga.com, I give some specific tools that have been studied to be associated with brain health and behavior.
Read here to learn more about these 4 factors:
1. Diet and Microbiome
2. Fish Oil
3. Individual Supplementation
4. Essential Oils
(1) Neuman I, Elian R, Nahum H, Shaked P, Creter D. The danger of “yellow dyes” (tartrazine) to allergic subjects. Clin Allergy. 1978 Jan;8(1):65-8.
(2) Goldenring JR, Batter DK, Shaywitz BA. Sulfanilic acid: behavioral change related to azo food dyes in developing rats. Neurobehav Toxicol Teratol. 1982 Jan-Feb;4(1):43-9
(3) Synthetic food coloring and behavior: a dose response effect in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, repeated-measures study. J Pediatr. 1994 Nov;125(5 Pt 1):691-8.
(4) McCann, D, Barrett, An, Cooper, A, Crumpler, D, Dalen, L, Grimshaw, K, Lok, K, et al. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet, 370 (9598): 1560 – 1567, November 3, 2007. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3
(5) Kanarek RB. Artificial food dyes and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Nutr Rev. 2011 Jul;69(7):385-91. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00385.x. Epub 2011 Jun 30
(6) Mercola, J. Certain Gut Bacteria Protect Against Food Allergies. Mercola.com. September 10, 2014.
(7) Cox, et. al. Altering the Intestinal Microbiota during a Critical Developmental Window Has Lasting Metabolic Consequences. Cell. 158(4), August 2014; 705–721. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2014.05.052
Essential Oils References:
- Debiec, J, Sullivan, RM. Intergenerational transmission of emotional trauma through amygdala-dependent mother-to-infant transfer of specific fear. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Jul 28. pii: 201316740. [Epub ahead of print] http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/07/23/1316740111.long
- Zabludovsky,K. Mother’s Fears Are Passed to Children Through Smell, Study Suggests. Newsweek. July 28, 2014.
- Mercola, J. Mother’s Fears Are Passed to Children Through Smell, Study Suggests. Mercola.com. August 14, 2014. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/08/14/hereditary-trauma.aspx
- The Anxiolytic Effect of Aromatherapy on Patients Awaiting Ambulatory Surgery: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013; 2013: 927419. Published online Dec 17, 2013. doi: 10.1155/2013/927419. (Bergamot)
- A systematic review on the anxiolytic effects of aromatherapy in people with anxiety symptoms. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Feb;17(2):101-8. doi: 10.1089/acm.2009.0277. Epub 2011 Feb 10.
- Citrus aurantium L. essential oil exhibits anxiolytic-like activity mediated by 5-HT(1A)-receptors and reduces cholesterol after repeated oral treatment. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013 Feb 23;13:42. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-13-42. (Bitter Orange)
- LoBisco, S. The Smell of Pain: the Power of Olfaction in the Relief of Pain. NDNR. July 2014. http://ndnr.com/e-version/jul14/jul14.pdf.html
- Physicians for Social Responsibility. Cancer and Toxic Chemicals. http://www.psr.org/environment-and-health/confronting-toxics/cancer-and-toxic-chemicals.html.
- Antioxidative effects of lemon oil and its components on copper induced oxidation of low density lipoprotein. Arzneimittelforschung. 2001 Oct;51(10):799-805. PMID: 11715632
- Plant phenylpropanoids as emerging anti-inflammatory agents. Mini Rev Med Chem. 2011 Sep;11(10):823-35.
- D-Limonene: a review of its safety and clinical applications. Altern Med Rev. 2007 Sep;12(3):259-64. PMID: 18072821.
- Citrus peel use is associated with reduced risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the skin. Nutr Cancer. 2000;37(2):161-8. PMID: 11142088.
- Modulation of genotoxicity and DNA repair by plant monoterpenes camphor, eucalyptol and thujone in Escherichia coli and mammalian cells. Food Chem Toxicol. 2011 Sep;49(9):2035-45. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2011.05.015. Epub 2011 May 19.
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic, Grade A essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been AFNOR and ISO standardized. There is no quality control in the United States and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. This information is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness.
Images courtesy of istockphotos.com