The Snow family’s rules were straightforward. Evan, Emily Snow’s first-grader, could have his favorite treat if he made it through the evening without kicking, biting, or hitting.
Evan, on the other hand, rarely received his prize.
Snow, of Roy, Utah, described him as “volatile from morning to night.” “We were always on pins and needles, never knowing when a violent explosion would occur.”
Evan was taking two psychiatric medications for his aggression, according to Snow. He had been going to therapy on a weekly basis since kindergarten.
When Evan was in second grade in October 2020, a relative suggested that the Snows avoid artificial food dyes, which were in Evan’s nightly reward as well as many of the fruit snacks, chips, and drinks he consumed. Snow claims that the dietary change accomplished what thousands of dollars in neuropsychological testing, psychiatry appointments, and therapy could not. Evan was a calmer, happier child after four weeks.
“Instead of the Incredible Hulk, we had a little boy,” she explained.
The Snows are among a growing number of families, scientists, pediatricians, and legislators who believe there is a strong link between synthetic food dyes and children’s behavior — a view shared by the Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA reviewed the potential link between artificial food dyes and hyperactivity in 2011 and determined that no causal relationship could be established for children in the general population who were not diagnosed with behavioral disorders. In 2019, the agency revisited the issue and maintained its stance. However, a California state senator claims that newly compiled research proves that artificial food colorings — which appear on nutrition labels as Red 40, Yellow 5, and Blue 1, among other names — harm many children, and parents have the right to be informed.
State Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat, has introduced legislation that would require warning labels to be placed on any foods containing such dyes sold in California.
He hopes that his bill will pass sometime in 2022, making packaging labels mandatory in California beginning in January 2023.
While artificial dyes are widely used in candies, cereals, and other foods in the United States, they are scarce in Europe. Because a 2007 study in the United Kingdom discovered a link between combinations of artificial food colorings and hyperactivity in children, even those without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, synthetic dyes were all but eliminated from foods there.
Dyes are not prohibited in Europe. However, following the findings of the 2007 study, the European Union mandated that products containing certain dyes bear a warning label stating that they may have a negative impact on children’s activity and attention spans.
Instead of having their products labeled with the warning, many manufacturers chose to remove synthetic food dyes for the European market. They colored their foods with natural dyes, such as blackcurrant or spirulina concentrate, as an alternative.
Wieckowski’s bill seeks to achieve similar outcomes, or at the very least, to educate parents. Wieckowski has presented evidence from what he claims is the most comprehensive report on the link between dyes and children’s behavior, compiled by his state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, to support his position.
The April peer-reviewed report compiles findings from human and animal studies on the health effects of food dyes dating from the 1970s to the present.
The researchers discovered that 64 percent of the 27 clinical studies examined showed a link between food coloring and behavioral problems in children. Recent studies were more likely to find a link, with 5 of the 6 studies conducted after 1990 reporting statistically significant findings.
There are numerous groups on Facebook dedicated to dye-free diets for children, some with nearly 10,000 members. Several brands and chains, including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Aldi, have gone mostly dye-free with their products.
The transition away from synthetic colors has not always been successful. General Mills created a naturally colored Trix cereal in 2016, replacing its famous neon fruity puffs with colors derived from purple carrots and turmeric. The new Trix caused such a stir among die-hard Trix fans that General Mills reinstated the artificial colors. According to a General Mills spokesperson, the reintroduction of the classic Trix received a “incredibly positive response” from consumers.