Here’s What You Need to Know:
- Artificial food colourants (AFCs) are derived from petroleum and are used to improve the colour and appearance of food and beverages.
- AFCs have been implicated in hyperactive behaviours in children. Tartrazine is one such food colourant.
- Benzoate, a common food preservative, may worsen the effects of AFCs.
- Studies show that some children are more affected than others.
- Although AFCs are allowed in foods, regulatory bodies in some countries have taken proactive measures to have food manufacturers using the six artificial food colours (listed in this article) give a warning that the latter “may cause hyperactive behaviours in children”.
- It is best to minimise exposure to AFCs by reading labels carefully and choose products that use natural food colourants and no benzoates.
Finding Artificial Food Colourants on food labels.
There are many artificial food colourants used today but there are six, listed below, that are the most commonly used.
These colourants are as follows:
□ Allura Red (E 129): cherry-red: used in soft drinks, candy, children’s medications and ice cream.
□ Brilliant Blue (E133): blue colouring used in candies and beverage mixes.
□ Sunset Yellow (E110): Yellow colouring: used in candy, desserts, snacks and sauces.
□ Tartrazine (E102): lemon-yellow dye found in soft drinks, candy and cereals.
□ Indigo Carmine (E132): blue dye used in candy, ice-cream and cereals.
□ Erythrosine (E127): A cherry-red coloring commonly used in candy, popsicles and cake-decorating gels.
In America these colourants are often listed by their names while in Europe they are listed by an “E-number”. South Africa follows the European system.
Evidence for AFCs causing hyperactivity
Interest in the effects of AFCs on hyperactive behaviours and learning difficulties in children dates from the early 70s when a diet that eliminates AFCs and preservatives began to be recommended to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (1).
It must be noted that AFCs do not cause ADHD but studies have shown a small but significant negative effect of AFCs on children’s behaviour, regardless of whether or not they have ADHD.
A number of studies found an improvement in behaviours when AFCs, along with the popular preservative Benzoate, were eliminated from the diet of children with ADHD (2).
Another study found that food dyes, along with sodium benzoate, increased hyperactivity in both 3-year-olds and a group of 8- and 9-year-olds (3). However, because these study participants received a mixture of ingredients, it is difficult to determine what caused the hyperactivity.
It is probable that both benzoates and AFCs influence behaviour and foods containing them should be limited or eliminated.
Tartrazine, a very popular AFC, has been associated with behavioural changes like irritability, restlessness, depression and difficulty with sleeping (4). The good news is that many manufacturers have taken the initiative to stop using Tartrazine in food products, hence the recent explosion of “Tartrazine-free” products on the market.
Not all kids respond the same way
It appears that not all children react the same way to AFCs. Researchers at Southampton University found a genetic component that determines how food dyes affect a child (5).
While effects from AFCs have been observed in children with and without ADHD, some children seem much more sensitive to dyes than others (6).
The Authorities’ Ruling on AFCs
The position of both the FDA and the EFSA is that there is currently a lack of evidence to conclude that AFCs are unsafe.
However, in spite of the small number of studies conducted on the topic, there is definitely enough evidence to raise concern.
Interestingly, in 2009 the British government began encouraging food manufacturers to find alternative substances to color food. As of 2010, in the UK the following warning is required on the label of any food that contains artificial food dyes (7):
‘may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’.
□ Check the colour of the product: if a manufactured food product is brightly coloured then chances are that it contains AFCs. Proceed to read the label to spot the AFCs listed above.
□ Choose plant-derived colourants: read product labels to spot plant-based colourants like
a. Beta-carotene (from carrots-orange/ yellow)
b. Betanin (from beetroot-red),
c. Lycopene (from tomato-red)
d. Chlorophyllin (from algae-green)
e. Curcumin (from turmeric-orange)
□ Avoid benzoates: check labels for benzoates in the ingredients list. Avoid products containing benzoates as far as possible.
□ The dose makes the poison: many health products like medication and vitamins contains AFCs. However, the level of use of AFCs in these products and the amounts you would usually ingest are quite low compared to, let’s say, an AFC-coloured fruit juice. So don’t sweat over it.
“All things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.”-—Paracelsus (Father of Modern Toxicology)
MSc (Med) Exer. Sci (UCT) cum laude,
BSc (Hons) Biology-Human Nutrition
Veeraj’s passion revolves around researching and developing nutritional products for optimal health and performance, with a particular interest in sports, child and diabetic nutrition products. Veeraj was previously a graduate student at the University of Cape Town, where he examined the effect of exercise and nutrition on the function of genes in muscle. His research was published in renowned scientific journals and medical textbooks on Diabetes and Exercise (PubMed listing). Veeraj keeps healthy by regularly lifting weights and taking daily walks.