(Is the rainbow as harmless as we think?): food coloring and side effects on children

Author: Chiara Paschetta
Date: 11/04/2014



Food coloring, or color additive, is any dye, pigment or substance that imparts color when it is added to food or drink.
They come in many forms consisting of liquids, powders, gels and pastes.
Food coloring is used both in commercial food production and in domestic coking, but can also be used in a variety of non-food applications including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, home craft projects and medical devices.

In Europe food additives are marked with a numerical code preceded by the letter "E". Food coloring are included in the range e100- e199.

In December 2008 the European Parliament approved the regulation 1333/ 2008 imposing the words it can have negative effects on children' s activity and attention on the label of the products containing the following food coloring:

I searched: Wikipedia


The aim of food coloring is to make food more desirable for the consumer.
People associated certain colors with certain flavors, for example in a box of candy there’ll be red for strawberry candies, orange for orange ones, yellow for lemon…
They are also used to correct color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions, so that it can be perceived by the consumer as more natural.
Sometimes the purpose of food coloring is to render the food funny and unusual, like green eggs and blue cocktails.

I searched: Wikipedia

Food coloring and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

The European Parliament's decision to change the label of products containing some food coloring was based on previous studies showing a connection between these compounds and hyperactive behaviour in children:

  • In the June 2004 Archives of Disease in Childhood, a study showed that 3-year-old children on a diet free of artificial dyes and benzoate preservatives exhibited increased hyperactivity when challenged with a drink containing a mixture of the widely used sodium benzoate plus the dyes Sunset Yellow, carmoisine, tartrazine, and Ponceau 4R (Stevenson and colleagues termed this combination “mix A”).

I searched: The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children, June 2004

  • On 3 November 2007 researchers led by Jim Stevenson, a professor of psychology at the University of Southampton, United Kingdom, published in The Lancet a new double-blind placebo-controlled study built upon the previous one, expanding the study group to include 153 3-year-olds and 144 8- and 9-year-olds representative of the general population. Children ate diets free of the elements in mix A, "mix A" (made of sodium benzoate plus the dyes Sunset Yellow, carmoisine, tartrazine, and Ponceau 4R) and a second, more concentrated mixture of additives (“mix B,” comprising sodium benzoate plus the dyes Sunset Yellow, carmoisine, Quinolone Yellow, and Allura Red AC) for six weeks. During that time, they drank a daily serving of plain juice (placebo) or juice containing one of the two mixes; the test drink changed weekly. To measure hyperactivity, the team calculated a global hyperactivity aggregate (GHA) based upon questionnaires completed by parents, teachers, and trained observers. Older children also completed a computer-based assessment of attention. Significant increases in GHA occurred with mix A in both age groups, with 3-year-olds showing a greater effect. Mix B was associated with a small significant effect in 8- and 9-year-olds, but not in 3-year-olds, who had a wide range of individual responses.
    Professor Jim Stevenson concluded that the results suggest that consumption of certain mixtures of artificial food colours and sodium benzoate preservative were associated with increases in hyperactive behaviour, and ''However, parents should not think that simply taking these additives out of food will prevent hyperactive disorders. We know that many other influences are at work but this at least is one a child can avoid."

I searched: Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial, 6 September 2007

I searched: Major study indicates a link between hyperactivity in children and certain food additives, 6 September 2007

Industries rejected the studies, also because these compounds where largely used in products for children.
At the first time, EFSA (European Food Safety Authority)'s experts too rejected it because the study was carried out on mixtures of dyes and not to individual compounds. Recently, the panel took into account recent toxicological studies of these individual colors, deciding to reduce the acceptable daily intake (DGA) for quinoline yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow FCF (E110) and cochineal Red A (E124) and recognizing that part of the population may develop intolerance to tartrazine (E 102), even below the DGA.

I searched: Iperattività infantile: stop ai coloranti, 20 September 2010


Taking into account that children are the most attracted to colorful foods category, industries should intensify research on vegetable dyes that can give the same shade of dangerous food coloring.
At Università Politecnica delle Marche, Gianna Ferretti has suggested the use of safflower extract ( a flower with orange petals) in soft drinks colored yellow, instead of tartazine.
For the color red the lycopene obtained from tomatoes, the extract of red turnip and the antocyanins derived from berries can be used. Moreover estracts of turmeric and paprika can be used t o give different shades from yellow to orange.

In addition, people should remember that even if looks also counts, the main aim of food is to give energy and nutrients to the body. So a not perfect red apple, with an irregular shape may be healthier than an apple that seems the fairy tale of Snow White's one.

I searched: Iperattività infantile: stop ai coloranti, 20 September 2010

Paschetta Chiara

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