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Health & wellness

Daily Dose

Are artificial food colorings worse for kids than sugar?

Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but artificial food colorings have never been on my radar when it comes to determining food purchases for my kids. I check to see how much sugar is in the cereals or popsicles they ask me to buy, and I’m mindful of looking for natural ingredients but I never really worried about food dyes posing health risks.

I decided to take a closer look after receiving an email this week from the Centers for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit nutrition advocacy group, hailing a new “first-ever” study that revealed the amounts of food dyes in brand-name foods.

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“The findings are disturbing since the amounts of dyes found in even single servings of numerous foods — or combinations of several dyed foods — are higher than the levels demonstrated in some clinical trials to impair some children’s behavior,” read the statement from CSPI. (These are the same folks that first alerted us in the 1990s to how many calories were in our favorite Chinese food dishes and movie theater popcorn.)

Whether food dyes have contributed to the rise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder remains a subject of fierce debate since studies measuring the effects of these dyes on children have yielded mixed results with some showing that they have a negative effect on behavior and others finding no effect.

Since 2010, the European Union has required food manufacturers to place a warning label on all products with artificial food dyes declaring that they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” A US Food and Drug Administration advisory committee, however, voted against adding warning labels in 2011 and has not revisted the issue since then.

In the latest research, Purdue University researchers found the one cup of General Mills’ Trix cereal contained 36.4 milligrams of Yellow 6, Blue 1, and Red 40 food dyes. While the FDA requires the dyes to be listed on the label, the amounts are not required. Fruity Cheerios had 31 mg of food dyes per cup. Everything from Jello to cookies to cupcake icing had these dyes. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese? It too has artificial dye: 17.6 mg per 1 cup serving, according to the research published online last month in the journal Clinical Pediatrics.

“Nesquik Strawberry milk gets its color from red dye not strawberries, and Jello Lemon pudding from yellow dye not lemons,” said study author Laura Stevens, a research associate in nutrition science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

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Another study she and her colleagues published in the same journal last year measured the amount of food dye in beverages finding the highest amounts — an average of 15 to 25 mg per 8-ounce serving — in Orange Crush, Powerade, and Kool-Aid.

A handful of clinical trials found that a small percentage of children experience attention problems and agressive behavior when they consume 35 mg a day of synthetic coloring, while a larger percentage experiences behavioral problems at doses of 100 mg a day or higher.

Americans eat an average of 62 mg a day of these artificial food dyes, according to FDA data, up from 12 mg per day in 1950.

“Until now, how much of these neurotoxic chemicals are used in specific foods was a well-kept secret,” CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said in a statement. “But now it is clear that many children are consuming far more dyes than the amounts shown to cause behavioral problems in some children. The cumulative impact of so much dyed foods in children’s diets, from breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, is a partial reason why behavioral problems have become more common.”

Stevens said studies estimated that 8 percent of ADHD cases are due to artificial dyes in the diet, but likely other food ingredients trigger symptoms as well including milk, soy, preservatives like sodium benzoate, chocolate, and wheat — to name a few. Pinpointing which, if any, foods aggravate a child’s behavioral symptoms can be extremely tricky. Doctors may try food elimination diets where they remove most foods from a child’s diet adding each one back individually to see if any triggers symptoms.

“No one diet fits all,” Stevens said, though reducing consumption of artificial dyes would likely lead to a more nutritious diet for kids overall. “Many foods containing high amounts of added sugar also have these artificial dyes,” she said. “Avoiding one can help avoid the other.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.

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