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Food Coloring

Child Nutrition Basics


Updated June 02, 2014

Many foods that are targeted at kids to make them more fun looking have artificial food coloring.

Many foods that are targeted at kids to make them more fun looking have artificial food coloring.

Photo © Vincent Iannelli, MD

Food coloring and food dyes have been used throughout history, although until recently, most food coloring was natural and didn't include the artificial food dyes that are commonly used today.

For example, saffron is a natural food coloring that has been used to add a yellow color to foods since the early Roman Empire and even before then, in Egypt.

Food Coloring

Although we often think about the food coloring in sugary kids' cereals, such as Cocoa Pebbles, Lucky Charms, and Trix, food coloring can also be used to make other foods more appealing.

Food coloring is used to make certain foods have a more uniform color, to simulate the color of fruits and vegetables that aren't actually in the food, and in many foods that are targeted at kids to make them more fun looking.

Commonly used artificial food coloring agents include:

  • Blue 1, a bright blue food dye that is commonly used in beverages, dairy products powders, jellies, confections, condiments, icings, syrups, and extracts
  • Blue 2, royal blue food dye that is commonly used in baked goods, cereals, snack foods, ice cream, confections, and cherries
  • Green 3, a sea green food dye that is commonly used in beverages, puddings, ice cream, sherbet, cherries, confections, baked goods, and dairy products
  • Red 40, an orange-red food dye that is commonly used in gelatins, puddings, dairy products, confections, beverages, and condiments
  • Red 3, a cherry-red food dye that is commonly used in cherries in fruit cocktail and in canned fruits for salads, confections, baked goods, dairy products, and snack foods
  • Yellow 5, a lemon-yellow food dye that is commonly used in custards, beverages, ice cream, confections, preserves, and cereals
  • Yellow 6, an orange food dye that is commonly used in cereals, baked goods, snack foods, ice cream, beverages, dessert powders, and confections

Natural food coloring agents are also used in many foods, and in addition to saffron, include beet juice, annatto extract, and caramel color.

Food Coloring Problems

Is it safe for your kids to eat foods with artificial food coloring in them?

The Food & Drug Administration regulates all artificial food colorings and certifies them for use in foods. Although the FDA says that adding food coloring to food is safe, some groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), insist that they aren't and want them banned.

The idea that artificial food coloring could be a problem for children was popularized in the 1970s by Dr. Ben Feingold and his Feingold Diet. This diet eliminated a number of items from a child's diet, including artificial food coloring, artificial flavoring, aspartame (an artificial sweetener), and artificial preservatives.

Although most initial studies discounted the effects of the Feingold Diet any link between food coloring and behavior problems or ADHD, a couple of newer studies from the United Kingdom suggest that maybe they do. One study alternately gave children either a drink with food colorings and preservatives or a placebo drink over a four week period, and parents reported worsening of their children's behavior, even when they were given the placebo drink. The behavior was a little worse with the drink with the food coloring in it, but even more significantly, the testers in the clinic doing the research didn't notice any difference in the behavior of the children, whether they were drinking the food coloring mix or the placebo drink.

A another research study from the United Kingdom that was published in the journal Lancet found small increases in hyperactivity in a group of 3 year olds and another group of 8 to 9 year olds, but it was both when they drank a mix of artificial food coloring and when given a drink with a food preservative.

The FDA has reviewed the issue of food coloring and hyperactivity, including recent studies and has again concluded that it 'does not substantiate a link between the color additives that were tested and behavioral effects.'

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