Try This: Artificial Dyes Are Breaking Our Brains

More and more evidence is showing a link between artificial colors and mood and behavioral challenges in kids. But do you know what’s even more concerning?

Consumption of artificial dyes has increased by nearly 500 percent in the past 50 years, and children are the biggest population of consumers (1). 

If you have young kids in your life who are showing signs of ADHD, aggressive outbursts, or unexplained mood swings, it’s important to know that artificial colors could be a possible trigger.

Today, I’m sharing some research and real-life anecdotes that give reason to suspect that artificial dyes may be troublesome for some kids and what you can start doing right now to get them out of their diet.

This newsletter is for parents, grandparents, teachers, caregivers, or anyone who has a child in their life. But before we jump in, I want to give some love to today’s sponsor, Inside Tracker.
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Alright, let’s jump in by answering this super important question:

Why Are Artificial Dyes Such a Problem? 

Artificial dyes are made from the process of cracking crude oil (a.k.a. petroleum—yuck!!). These synthetic colors give processed foods their bright colors, but research shows they can come with unintended—and potentially harmful—consequences.

For example, three of the most commonly used artificial food dyes—Red Dye No. 3, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6—are xenoestrogens (2)(3), which means they replicate estrogen-like activities in the body. Estrogen-mimicking chemicals are linked to health concerns such as weight gain, hormonal imbalances, and early puberty in boys and girls (4)(5).

Toxicology reports show that these artificial dyes can also be contaminated with carcinogens (6), and they have been linked to DNA damage, inflammation, migraines, allergies, and certain types of cancer (2)(7)(8).

But their impact on the brain, especially kids’ developing brains, is especially concerning. 

Artificial Dyes and Their Impact on Developing Brains

Last year, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) published a report based on their review of the research stating there was significant evidence of an association between artificial food dyes and adverse behavioral outcomes in children (8).

Here’s a quote from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that summarizes the report’s biggest takeaway:

“OEHHA’s report concluded that human studies show that dyes are associated with inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and restlessness in sensitive children.”

The key thing to note here is that not all children are negatively impacted by synthetic food dyes; it’s just those who are sensitive.

However, the rate of ADHD diagnoses has nearly doubled in children in the US over the past 20 years (10), and even though this isn’t entirely related to food dyes, researchers do estimate that about 8 percent of children’s cases can be related to artificial food colors (11).

Another study published in the prestigious journal The Lancet randomly assigned a group of nearly 300 kids who were three, eight, and nine years old to drink a beverage that contained artificial food coloring and sodium benzoate (a preservative) or a placebo (12). The drinks with artificial dyes and preservatives significantly increased hyperactivity across all three age groups. 

Despite the growing evidence, failure to implement policy changes means manufacturers are still using synthetic food dyes, and they aren’t planning on cutting down anytime soon. Believe it or not, their use is actually increasing. And the worst part is the kids who are most sensitive to their neurobehavioral effects are getting the brunt of it. 

One study found that just one milligram of Yellow 5 is enough to trigger symptoms in sensitive kids (13). Compare this to a serving of Lemon-Lime Gatorade, which has triple that amount, a serving of Sunny D, which has 20 times that amount, or the icing on a birthday cake, which can have up to 50mg of total artificial dyes.

These foods and beverages are staples in a lot of kids’ diets these days—but at what cost?

An Anecdotal Story about the Harmful Effects of Artificial Food Dyes

Dr. Rebecca Bevans, a doctor of clinical psychology, talks about the severe impact artificial food dyes had on her seven-year-old son’s mental and behavioral health in her TED Talk, The Effects of Artificial Food Dyes

Through her own research, she found that Red Dye No. 40 was linked to her son’s hyperactivity, “brain buzzing,” and impulsiveness symptoms, which were similar to ADHD. After eliminating Red 40 from her son’s diet for two weeks, his symptoms completely went away.

She also found a connection between other food dyes and symptoms in her son. Below you will find a list of symptoms and the specific food dyes she traced them back to.

Before you read through the table, I want to point out that this should not be mistaken for clinically backed evidence that can be applied to all children. My intention in including it is so that you can begin down the path of exploring the potential link between artificial dyes and behavioral challenges in kids.

Now that we’re aware of the impact artificial dyes can have on children who are sensitive to them, let’s talk about how we can protect them. Remember, it’s not about being perfect; it’s about having the awareness and being able to identify the link.

Try This:

I love this first tip and was excited to include it as my first recommendation because, the truth is, artificial dyes are everywhere! They are so ubiquitous in our food supply that it’s hard to tell if they’re causing behavioral issues without completely eliminating them from your child’s diet.

  1. Go dye-free for two weeks. Going back to Dr. Bevan’s talk, she goes into detail about her experience removing artificial food dyes from her son’s diet for two weeks—that’s it!Going artificial dye-free for two weeks was enough to create a significant turnaround in his mental health and to prove they were the cause of his behavioral challenges. Try eliminating all artificial dyes from your child’s diet for two weeks and see if you notice any significant changes in their behavior. This challenge might take a little planning, but it is a great way to see firsthand how your kids feel when they are not ingesting toxic artificial food dyes. If you notice a big change in their behavior, that could be a sign that long-term elimination of artificial dyes from their diet might be the best course of action for protecting the children in your household.
  2. Watch out for these dyes! Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are the most commonly used food dyes. These food dyes are tricky and are in more foods than you would think. They can be by themselves, but oftentimes all three can be found in the same food product. Even foods that are considered “healthy” contain artificial dyes.Note: Processed foods aren’t the only sources; artificial dyes are also super common in kids’ multivitamins, cough syrup, and other medications.
  3. Check out the EWG Food Scores database. If you have any hesitations about whether or not a food product is harmful, this rating system by the EWG is super helpful and can save a lot of time when making your grocery list.Below I’ve listed some examples of food products that contain the three most common food dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) plus some others. EWG’s database is also helpful for identifying other harmful food additives and preservatives.

Concluding Thoughts:

The effects of artificial dyes on our children’s brains is super concerning. Thankfully, there are some Big Food companies that are waking up to these dangers and taking strides to replace the artificial dyes in their products marketed to kids with natural, whole foods-based dyes like turmeric, beets, and carrots.

We’re all doing the best we can, and this is just another cog in the wheel of why processed foods are so dangerous and detrimental to our health. My hope in sharing this information today is that it can help draw attention to the link between artificial dyes and behavioral health in sensitive kids.

With love,
Dhru Purohit

1. PMID: 25599186
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