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  • Writer's pictureKate Killion

Are food dyes bad for kids?

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

You’ve seen the headlines: Red 40 linked to ADHD! Food dyes could be causing your child’s behavior problems! Stay away from Swedish Fish this holiday season!

Not surprisingly, parents are concerned and confused. Parents have asked me, should I avoid food dyes? Are all food dyes “bad?” Is food dye making it harder for my neurodivergent child to succeed in the classroom? Autistic children are already at higher risk for food allergies and picky eating- do I need to restrict food dyes, too?!

Let’s break it down:

Federal Regulations on Food Dye

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates color additives (AKA, food dyes). For a food dye to be approved, the FDA must know the composition of the dye, the amount that would typically be consumed, and the immediate and long-term health effects of the dye. The FDA also determines a limit of how much food dye children and adults can consume without poor health effects. This limit has a built-in safety margin, and is lower than the actual amount that would cause harm.

The FDA also sets and enforces regulations related to food dye labeling. This means that a food’s ingredient list should always include food dye.

Learn more about the FDA regulation of food dyes here!

Criticisms of the FDA Food Dye Regulations

There have been several criticisms of the FDA’s regulations of food dye. Most notably, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) published a review evaluating the potential impacts of synthetic food dyes on activity and attention in children.

In this article, OEHHA criticizes the FDA for determining food dye safety based on “older studies” that do not adequately assess child behavior. In their own review, OEHHA states that about half of 27 studies found a statistically significant association between food dye and “neurobehavioral impacts” (AKA, attention and hyperactivity).

However, this review has some serious limitations! First, most studies did not find an association between dye and child behavior when objectively assessing child behavior. Instead, studies found an association with parent or teacher reports of child behavior. While parents and teachers know their children, we humans are subject to bias. For example, if a parent thinks food dye will cause behavior problems, they are more likely to report behavior problems. Additionally, these studies had small sample sizes that do not represent all kids. So, we do not know if kids in the general population would experience the same effect as kids in the studies. And lastly, the other half of studies found no relationship between food dye and child behavior whatsoever!

Importantly, the OEHHA acknowledges that there is likely individual variability in the sensitivity to food dyes. This means that some kids might react to dyes, while others might not. As it stands, we do not have great evidence to determine who will react to food dyes, and who will not.

TLDR; Should you feed your child products with food dye?

As it stands, the science is mixed. Food dyes are heavily regulated and present in only small amounts. Most people are eating less than the FDA “safe limit” for food dyes. There is some poor-quality evidence that food dyes may trigger attention or behavior problems in kids, but additional research is needed to (1) confirm this finding and (2) determine what dyes may be harmful, in what amounts, and for whom.

Given the state of the evidence, I tell parents not to stress too much about food dyes. I recommend that all children consume a well-rounded diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, and fats, with only small amounts of “treats” like candies. So, by focusing on serving your kids a well-balanced diet, you would be limiting their food dye exposure anyway. If they have red food dye at a school Christmas party, they will be okay. However, if parents wish to abstain from food dyes entirely, I am here to support you!

Want to talk to a registered dietitian about your child’s unique needs? Schedule an appointment with us via email at or phone at (833) 516-0454! Scheduling is managed by LWell, Inc.

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