When my eldest daughter was a toddler, she took the term "terrible twos" to a whole new level. Tantrums occurred multiple times a day ranging in intensity from mild hysterics to flailing/screaming/punching madness. My husband and I tried every "magic" parenting technique aimed to tame toddler tantrums to no avail. That's when a friend told me to consider removing food dyes from her diet.

I wish I could report that removing food dyes was the silver bullet that turned my daughter from the manic toddler to the well-adjusted young lady she is today. To be honest, we were already avoiding a lot of the foods that are loaded with dyes, but I was surprised to learn that food dyes were still sneaking in my daughter's diet. It probably comes as no surprise that food dyes are found in foods like Fruit Loops or gummi bears, but would you have expected to find them in grapefruit juice, fruit cups and frozen waffles? I sure didn't.

Last year, the European Parliament began requiring products containing synthetic food colors to carry warning labels saying that "consumption may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." In a few months, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will host a hearing on whether food dyes adversely impact children's health. 

There are currently nine synthetic dyes approved for use in food. They are used primarily to help restore the color washed away by processing, and make foods look more appetizing or "fun." Food manufacturers also can use natural dyes made from plant, animal or mineral sources, such as saffron, beets or caramel coloring but the synthetic, petroleum-based colors are cheaper and easier to control.

Pediatric allergist Ben Feingold was the first to suspect that synthetic food colors might trigger behavioral problems in kids. As early as the 1970s, he began treating allergies by putting children on elimination diets, free of both synthetic food dyes and preservatives, but Feingold's theories were never proven.  

In 2007, researchers at the University of Southampton in England reported that hyperactive behavior increased in two groups of children — age 3 and ages 8 and 9 — when they consumed synthetic dyes. "There is good evidence that artificial food colors can also increase levels of hyperactivity," said Jim Stevenson, the study's lead author and professor emeritus in the school of psychology at the University of Southampton.

Unlike previous studies, the Southampton research found the effect in children from the general population, not just those whose parents suspected they were sensitive to food dyes. And the study didn't just rely on parental ratings of their children's behavior, which can be subject to bias; it also used ratings generated by teachers, researchers and computers.

As for my daughter, I will say that removing food dyes from her diet did help to improve her behavior. I was never sure that the food dyes were solely to blame because once I started looking, I realized that foods with artificial dyes also tend to be those with added sugar, preservatives and other chemicals. So was it the food dyes, the sugar or just the passage of time that reduced my daughter's tantrums? I really can't say for sure.

What do you think?

[via Chicago Tribune]

Food dyes blamed for hyperactivity in kids
Critics blame food dye additives for triggering behavioral problems in children.