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A Closer Look

A gray area over food dyes

The FDA doesn't find enough evidence of a link between the additives and hyperactivity in children. The decision was based on inconsistent studies.

April 11, 2011|By Jill U. Adams, Special to the Los Angeles Times

It's not clear. The estimates used by the FDA panel were crude at best, Winter says. They essentially take the amount of dye manufactured in the country, adjust for the percentage estimated to go into food products and divide it by the U.S. population.

Analyses from the 1970s by the FDA estimated that the biggest consumers of artificial food colors ingested more than 120 milligrams of the substances in a day. Most of the studies on kids and hyperactivity tested smaller amounts than that. A common challenge dose was 26 mg — leading critics to question whether that's enough to show an effect. "We just don't have a handle on it," Winter says.

So what can I do?

There is no way to identify which kids may respond poorly to artificial food colors without manipulating their diets. Parents of children with ADHD should talk to their child's physician about possible dietary factors, Burks said. Parents of kids without attention-deficit disorder probably don't have anything to worry about, he adds. However, any parent who wants to avoid artificial food colors can do so by carefully reading food labels. All of the dyes that the panel assessed are required by law to be listed on labels.

Finally, consider whether your kid needs to be eating too much, anyway, of the types of foods apt to contain dyes, says Laura Stevens, a nutrition researcher at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who conducted the 2010 review in Clinical Pediatrics. "I don't know of any nutritious foods that they're in," Stevens says.

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