Food Additives That May Affect Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Could eliminating the foods that contain dye from a child's diet help with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms? Experts say there's not enough evidence to recommend this action, although a small subset of children may benefit. Here's a list of additives that could aggravate attention problems, although none—with the exception of Yellow No. 5—has been studied alone in humans.

What Is ADHD?

ADHA is a developmental disorder usually diagnosed in childhood but can be diagnosed in adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), typical ADHS symptoms include:

  • Daydreaming
  • Forgetfulness
  • Fidgeting—also known as stimming
  • Excessive talking
  • Making careless mistakes or taking risks
  • Inability to avoid a temptation
  • Trouble sharing
  • Problems with group relationships

The cause of ADHD is largely unknown but some research points to genetics as a possible factor. Alcohol and tobacco use in pregnancy, premature or low birth weights, and exposure to lead during pregnancy are also being studied.

Is There a Link to Food Additives?

Most studies of a possible link between ADHD and foods analyzed blends of additives, not single ingredients, making it difficult to find a culprit.

A comprehensive list of dyes in food products can be found in the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Also, keep in mind that food colorings are just some of the ingredients added to refined or processed foods.

Blue No. 1

Also known as: Brilliant blue

What it is: A food coloring

Where you can find it: Frito-Lay Sun Chips French Onion and other Frito-Lay products; some Yoplait products; some JELL-O dessert products; Fruity Cheerios; Trix; Froot-Loops; Apple Jacks; Quaker Cap'N Crunch's Crunch Berries; some Pop-Tarts products; some Oscar Mayer Lunchables; Duncan Hines Whipped Frosting Chocolate; Edy's ice cream products; Skittles candies; Jolly Ranchers Screaming Sours Soft & Chew Candy; Eclipse gum; Fanta Grape

Blue No. 2

Also known as: Indigotine

What it is: A food coloring

Where you can find it: Froot-Loops; Post Fruity Pebbles; Pop-Tarts products; Duncan Hines Moist Deluxe Strawberry Supreme Premium Cake Mix; Betty Crocker Frosting Rich & Creamy Cherry; M&M's Milk Chocolate Candies; M&M's Milk Chocolate Peanut Candies; Wonka Nerds Grape/Strawberry; pet foods

Green No. 3

Also known as: Fast Green FCF

What it is: A food coloring, though rarely used these days

Where you can find it: Candy, beverages, ice cream, puddings

Orange B

Also known as: C.I. Acid and Orange 137

What it is: A food coloring, but no longer used

Where you used to find it: Sausage casings

Red No. 3

Also known as: Carmoisine

What it is: A food coloring found only in a few types of food products

Where you can find it: Candy, cake icing, chewing gum

Sodium Benzoate

Also known as:  E211 and benzoate of soda

What it is: A food preservative

Where you can find it: Fruit juice, carbonated beverages, and pickles: You'll find sodium benzoate in abundance in acidic foods. It is used to stymie the growth of microorganisms, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Red No. 40

Also known as: Allura red

What it is: A food coloring and the most widely used food dye in the U.S., trumping both Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6.

Where you can find it: Some Frito-Lay products; some Yoplait products; JELL-O Gelatin desserts; Quaker Instant Oatmeal; Trix; Froot-Loops; Apple Jacks; some Pop-Tart products; Kid Cuisine Kung Fu Panda products; Oscar Mayer Lunchables products; Hostess Twinkies; some Pillsbury rolls and frostings; some Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines frostings; and more

Yellow No. 5

Also known as: Tartrazine

What it is: Yellow No. 5 is the only food dye that has been tested alone and not simply as part of a mix. Those studies did link it to hyperactivity. It is the second most commonly used dye in the U.S.

Where you can find it: Nabisco Cheese Nips Four Cheese; Frito-Lay Sun Chips Harvest Cheddar and other Frito-Lay products; some Hunt's Snack Pack Pudding products; Lucky Charms; Eggo waffles and other waffle products; some Pop-Tarts products; various Kraft macaroni and cheese products; Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper and other products

Yellow No. 6

Also known as: Sunset Yellow

What it is: The third most widely used food dye in the U.S.

Where you can find it: Frito-Lay Cheetos Flamin' Hot Crunchy and other Frito-Lay products; Betty Crocker Fruit Roll-ups; some JELL-O gelatin deserts and instant puddings; Fruity Cheerios; Trix; some Eggo waffle products; some Kid Cuisine Kung Fu Panda products; some Kraft macaroni and cheese dinners; some Betty Crocker frostings; some M&M's and Skittles candies; Sunkist Orange Soda; Fanta Orange

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