People Are Obsessed With Cutting Out Red Dye, But Does It Really Affect Kids?
California recently banned Red Dye No. 3. Should you do the same in your family?
With the biggest candy holiday of the year right around the corner, the recent news that the state of California passed a ban on a number of food additives including FD&C Red No. 3 — an ingredient in a lot of popular candies that has been in use since the early 20th century — may have come as a bit of a surprise. In the ‘90s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of Red 3 use in cosmetics, and in 2011, they called for further investigation into a casual link between ingestion of Red 3 and behavior changes in children. With their new ban, California has outpaced the FDA’s processes, but is Red 3 really dangerous for kids? Should parents avoid the many candies and kid-friendly foods that contain it, or are links between eating red food dye and kids’ health overblown?
What is red food dye & why did California just ban it?
The recent flurry of news about red dye is indeed scary. California Assembly Bill 418, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law in early October, gives manufacturers until 2027 to remove Red Dye No. 3 — among a list of other food additives — from all food products sold in California. For parents, the list of foods that contain FD&C Red No. 3 may look daunting: The dye is used, unsurprisingly, as a coloring agent, and is in a lot of candies, yogurts, and other products marketed to children. Manufacturers of canned tomatoes even use this dye to punch up their products’ visual appeal. The Center For Science In The Public Interest (CSPI) has called Red No. 3 a known carcinogen, and called out the FDA for banning it in cosmetics but not in food. Also relevant to parents — particularly at a moment when Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses are on the rise — are ongoing concerns in the food safety community about the red food dye and its possible relationship to behavioral changes in kids.
Red food dye & kids behavior
We are not yet at the point where we have definitive answers to the question of how red dye affects kids. A 2021 report produced for California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard (OEHH) Assessment, entitled “Potential Neurobehavioral Effects of Synthetic Food Dyes in Children,” reviewed the data available on food dyes and their impact on children’s brains and concluded that more studies are warranted. “Another finding of the report is that, when you look at the basis for the FDA’s acceptable daily intakes is they’re based on older studies that weren't necessarily designed to understand what the behavioral and neurodevelopmental impacts of these exposures are,” explains Dr. Asa Bradman, a Professor of Public Health at University of California at Merced, who co-authored the report.
The public health and scientific community know that some chemicals have been associated with poor neurodevelopmental outcomes, Bradman explains, and it is well known that young kids in general are much more vulnerable to chemicals than adults. “A baby’s brain is going through immense development in utero and early postnatal [period], and if there's a chemical that may interfere with that developmental process, it may put things a little bit out of whack,” Bradman explains. “We sometimes use the analogy of the leaning tower of Pisa. You have a building that is architecturally intact — all the structure is still there — but it’s leaning, and that's what can possibly happen with early-life neurotoxic exposures. For food dye in particular, the FDA acceptable daily intakes are not based on those kinds of studies. If they were, we might have lower acceptable daily intakes.”
Red Dye 3 & ADHD
Several studies have looked at teh relationship between artificial food colorings (AFCs) and ADHD in kids. A 2012 study, published in the journal Neurotherapeutics (and which grew out of author Dr. Eugene Arnold’s testimony to the 2011 FDA Food Advisory Committee on the behavioral effects of AFCs), concluded that “AFCs are not a main cause of ADHD, but they may contribute significantly to some cases, and in some cases may additively push a youngster over the diagnostic threshold.” The authors also point to aphorism that “the dose makes the poison,” citing data that indicates that per capita daily consumption of AFCs has quadrupled in the last five decades. Much like the OEHH’s 2021 report, these authors primary conclusion is that more study is vital, saying that “evidence is inconclusive but too substantial to dismiss. Until safety can be better determined, we suggest minimizing children’s exposure to AFCs.”
In short, studies so far seem to point to a link between behavioral changes and Red 3, which is unsettling to say the least. But, for now the strongest voices in the scientific community are mostly saying that more research is needed. This has left many parents looking to bans in the European Union and now California, wondering if their own children should be avoiding these additives as well, despite the fact that they are — for now — FDA-approved for use in food.
How much red dye is safe?
While all of this may be a lot to take in, Bradman says that parents needn’t panic. While we wait for further studies to give more conclusive indication of exactly what is going on with Red 3 and kids’ behaviors, it makes sense to take simple steps to reduce your kids’ exposure to red food dye. Some food companies have already chosen to remove the dye from their products, and parents can and should always check labels for questionable additives. “Yes, seek out foods that don't contain these materials. But, I wouldn't panic if you're at a birthday party or an event — a treat is a treat.”
More concerning to Bradman is what he calls “chronic consumption” of foods containing Red 3, meaning people and families who are ingesting these foods daily. Parents can search the Environmental Working Group’s site easily for foods that contain Red 3, and you can always check the label at the store. And if you live in California, just wait a few years and your shelves will be Red 3 free.
Akintunde, M, Golub, M., Marty, M., Miller, M., Pham, N., Steinmaus, C., (2021) Potential Neurobehavioral Effects of Synthetic Food Dyes in Children. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, https://oehha.ca.gov/media/downloads/risk-assessment/report/healthefftsassess041621.pdf
Arnold LE, Lofthouse N, Hurt E. (2012) Artificial food colors and attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms: conclusions to dye for. Neurotherapeutics, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3441937/
Nigg JT, Lewis K, Edinger T, Falk M. (2012) Meta-analysis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4321798/
Dr. Asa Bradman, Professor of Public Health at University of California at Merced
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