Watch for hyperactivity with food dyes


Have you ever witnessed your child bounce off the walls after a friend’s birthday party? While sugar is likely partly to blame, the food dyes in the cake, candy and juice can affect your child’s behavior. The research on the effect of food dyes on children’s behaviors is still debatable, but as a mom, I have seen with my own two eyes the effect it can have on my children. A couple years ago, my mom was watching my boys for a little while, and when I came home I noticed that William’s ears were so red they were almost purple. I said, “What did he eat?!” It turns out she gave him some fruit snacks. Those little “snacks” are more like candy with all of the sugar and dye they have in them.

More recently, William and I made Christmas cookies with frosting and sprinkles. The cookies were made according to his dietary restrictions (the boy is allergic to everything under the sun), and I made sure to monitor his blood sugar. He has (undiagnosed) hypoglycemia, so he has to eat protein with every snack or meal. All was good with the cookies (or so I thought), but he turned into an absolute monster. The culprit? Food dyes!

I should have known better, but I allowed it because it was Christmas, and I didn’t think he would react as severely as he did. We went to a Christmas light display at our local botanical gardens, and he was completely outside of himself. It was bizarre how off he was. It was as if he had flipped a switch, and a different personality emerged. He had a hard time listening, couldn’t keep still, was super loud in the car, and was generally hyperactive. No amount of reminding or correcting could bring him out of it. It was two or three hours before the dyes wore off and his behavior returned to normal.

Lest you think I am alone in this, there are governments who have recognized the effect of food dyes on children’s behavior. In July 2008, the European Parliament voted to add warning labels with the phrase “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” to products with six synthetic red and yellow dyes. This action was spurred by a September 2007 study published in the medical journal The Lancet, supporting the idea that food dyes are linked to hyperactivity, even in kids who don’t normally exhibit this behavior.

This is interesting because it’s not hard to believe that William, with his food allergies, blood sugar issues, and sensory processing disorder, would react to food dyes. But I would consider his reaction to food dyes to be quite extreme. Given this, it’s certainly plausible that a child without all of these conditions would still react–on some level–to food dyes. There are some experts who say that children’s reaction to food dyes is analogous to what was known about lead and IQ in the early 1980s.

So if you are seeing uncharacteristic hyperactivity in your child or are trying to get to the root of ongoing tantrums that seem to come out of nowhere, consider eliminating food dyes from his diet. Even doing it for a few days should tell you whether they are to blame. Also be on the lookout for telltale red ears and red cheeks. These signal that the body is in overdrive and is reacting to something the child ate.

Source: “Do Food Dyes Affect Kids’ Behavior?” The Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2008. 


  1. You are doing the right thing for your child! If only more parents would also eliminate the dyes, artificial flavorings, etc. Their lives would be so much better. Are you aware of the Feingold Association? It is wonderful and teaches you where those additives are and which brands of foods to buy. Did you know there is a natural sprinkle for those cookies. I learned that from the Feingold Assoc:

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