Synthetic Food Dyes Affect Children’s Behavior, the State of California Says

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Today, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment released a ground-breaking, peer-reviewed report concluding that synthetic food dyes negatively affect children’s behavior. 

Such a comprehensive and rigorous assessment has never been undertaken before. The final health effects assessment provides authoritative validation of what multiple independent reviews already concluded: that synthetic food dyes can cause or exacerbate behavior problems in some children. 

The peer-reviewed assessment used a state-of-the-art approach combining systematic reviews and evidence integration. To reach its conclusions, it integrated evidence from 27 clinical trials in humans, as well as studies of laboratory animals and other types of studies that shed light on how food dyes might exert effects on the body (including studies on cells and neurotransmitters). Clinical trials in humans are the most powerful type of scientific evidence.

“This is the most comprehensive study of the behavioral effects of synthetic food dyes ever conducted,” said Lisa Lefferts, CSPI senior scientist, “Now is the time to turn from science to action.”

The report also concluded that FDA’s ‘safe levels,’ or Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADIs), are not adequate to protect children. “According to the report, these levels are based on decades-old studies incapable of detecting the types of behavioral effects measured in later studies,” said Lefferts.

The California assessment confirms and validates CSPI’s earlier report, Seeing Red, written by Lefferts, which highlighted the strong evidence that dyes negatively impact behavior in children. Synthetic food dyes include numbered colorings, such as Red 40, Red 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2, and Green 3. They often substitute for real, nutritious ingredients such as fruit, and are often used to make junk foods more attractive, especially to children.

“This represents a major victory for good science, and for protecting children, “said Laura MacCleery, CSPI director of program and strategy. “We will be taking this issue to the FDA, and pressing to eliminate dyes in school foods.”

The latest report was funded by the California legislature, through the support of Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont). Sen. Wieckowski recently introduced SB 651, the Reducing Exposure to Synthetic Food Dyes Act, which would require a safety warning label on products containing synthetic food dyes that informs consumers that “[s]ynthetic dyes may cause or worsen behavioral problems in children.”

After Europe enacted a similar labeling requirement over a decade ago, many food manufacturers reformulated their products for the European marketplace to eliminate the dyes subject to the warning label. This important bill will be heard before the California Senate Committee on Health on April 28.

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Contact Katherine Shek (kshek[at]cspinet.org) or Richard Adcock (radcock[at]cspinet.org).