Food Additives, Part III

by Colleen Kaemmerer

Are food dyes safe for most people, or do they cause more problems than is generally thought? Do food dyes cause negative behavior in children? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Most clinical studies conclude that, in regard to artificial colors, adverse reactions such as hives, swelling, and headaches can occur in susceptible individuals, but these cases are infrequent.

On the other hand, some medical professionals have found that even small amounts of a certain food, chemical, or food additive that a person is sensitive to can cause a reaction. In children, often their behavior is adversely affected. Behavioral symptoms include:

  • moodiness
  • irritability
  • excessive fatigue
  • depression
  • aggression
  • temper tantrums
  • hyperactivity
  • hiding under furniture or in dark corners

Dr. Doris Rapp, a pediatric allergist and environmental medical specialist, discusses this in her book, Is This Your Child? Discovering and Treating Unrecognized Allergies in Children and Adults. The Feingold Association is also based on the idea that behavior is affected by diet.

It's important to keep in mind that, obviously, not all behavior problems, including hyperactivity, are caused or aggravated by allergies and sensitivities. However, many health care professionals and parents have observed that some children are helped a great deal by changes in diet. In fact, my interest in allergies is due to the impact that diet can have on behavior. When my younger son has an allergy overload, he can become moody, fatigued, and irritable. When he was a preschooler, soon after his allergies were diagnosed, I decided to try certain suspected foods to see if there was a reaction. First, I tested his favorite beverage, a grape-flavored drink - no noticeable effect. Several days later, I gave him the grape drink and his favorite (at the time) snack, cheese puffs. The next day, while at his older brother's scout function, he had what I can only describe as a "meltdown". Fortunately, he hasn't had a meltdown like that since; of course, he has gotten older and can exhibit more self-control. I also don't buy cheese puffs any more.

I consulted his allergist about this, since I had, at other times, given him different foods with the same artificial colors and didn't notice any problems. The doctor replied that the combination of the grape drink and the cheese snack might have been enough to cause an adverse reaction. As a matter of fact, in the first book that I came across concerning allergies and behavior, Your Child's Food Allergies by Jane McNicol, the author mentions "junk-loading" as a way to test for a reaction if previous results have been marginal. In one example, after several hours of "junk food", one child asked his mother not to feed him that "stuff" anymore, since he could feel the effect.

For us, I basically try to limit my son's intake of food additives. He still can becoming moody or fatigued if he has an allergy overload, though. When he was in kindergarten, there was only one day during the whole school year that he received a bad conduct report; that was after his birthday. At that point, he had eaten, over the course of several days, foods that he was sensitive to and a good bit of food coloring as well. (He had 3 parties: school, home, grandparents.) Some parents find their child can not tolerate even a small amount of artificial coloring; as long as I watch my son's overall allergy exposure, he can enjoy moderate amounts.

© Colleen Kaemmerer

Colleen Kaemmerer was a contributing editor to's Allergies site.