The quick answer is to say “No”. This would please many people who hope that that means thinking about the role of diet in behavior and ADHD can then be dismissed. But they would be wrong! We need to be careful we do not go to extremes in our reaction. Artificial colours do cause reactions in some children and it is time this was acknowledged by everyone. Allergies are acknowledged but foods causing allergies do not need to be banned as they do not affect everyone. For the same reason artificial colours do not need to be banned.
The issue is complex so it is easy to be confused. A study done in the general population and published in the Lancet, a well respected journal, reported that six artificial colours, and the preservative benzoate, caused increased hyperactivity and attention problems in the children. But, to make a long story short, it was shown that some children changed a lot whereas others changed only a little. Overall the results were significant statistically so they showed that reactions are occurring. The most important result of that study was that it showed that children who have not been diagnosed with ADHD can react to these additives. This is not a surprise to researchers such as myself and clinicians who see families who suspect food as affecting their behaviour. We know that children using diet for symptoms such as eczema also report improvements in attention and activity, and that not everyone responds to diet. To make things even more complicated, at least half of those who react to colours also react to chocolate and tomato sauce, so not attending to those probably affected clarity of the study results.
If artificial colours had affected all children the issue would be more clearly a Public Health problem. The Australia and NZ Food Standards Authority would look at the risk to everyone and decide if there was a safe dose that could be allowed. If not it would have to be banned. This was an issue 30 years ago, when the use of artificial colours and flavours were first researched. Since they did not cause hyperactivity in children, but some children definitely did react, it was decided that ingredient labeling should become food law. That recognition that some people react to various additives needs a revived awareness and acceptance.
The other request by those who want colours banned is to have them replaced by natural colours which they report as causing less reactions. Unfortunately natural colours also cause reactions in the same group. When they were first used in low doses they were better tolerated but as the food industry used increasing amounts to make their products more appealing the reactions increased. The other problem to be aware of is what they will make the artificial colours from. They cannot use any food that is not approved by the Food Standards Authority, but it will mean using a wide variety of plant products that can then be a possible source of allergens. Another reason for not banning artificial colours is that they are not the only chemicals to cause reactions. Artificial flavor was part of the initial suspect additives. It has not received much attention as researchers thought it was less important than colours and also because it cannot easily be hidden in double blind placebo controlled research. But in the food industry artificial flavours are used in ten times the dose of colours. They were removed with colours from the diet of the children in the Lancet study. If the same flavours were returned with natural colours their presence would probably swamp any effect from the change in colours.
Food sensitivity is not a neat condition. If doctors knew the problem mechanism and there was a test that showed whether or not someone was food sensitive more people would be believed. Because food intolerance does not show up on tests as allergy does this does not happen. And because people call their reactions ‘allergy’ they are criticized and told that unless they show positive allergy tests their reactions do not occur. Those who react have even been called hypochondriacs or hysterics. But just because the mechanism is not known does not mean that the condition does not exist. The Lancet report confirmed earlier evidence that food intolerance does exist.
What should happen? The food law does not need to be changed but people who may be food sensitive need support and diet investigation. If families suspect their children are reacting to foods or want to investigate diet they should discuss this with their doctor and see a dietitian. This way they can be guided in how to investigate all the suspect chemicals and foods that may affect symptoms. Other exclusions are most preservatives, natural chemicals such as salicylates [high in tomato sauce and fruit juice], amines [high in chocolate, marinades and brown sauces] and natural and added mono sodium glutamate [MSG] often used in Asian food. This diet investigation provides the maximum chance of finding out whether or not children are sensitive, and of getting the best result in improved behavior if they are. Each child is different in what food chemicals they react to. Suspect additives and natural chemicals are best thought of as aggravating the underlying problems in susceptible people.