Toddler Nutrition 101: Understanding food dyes

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There has been a lot of talk about food dyes and their impact on children’s health lately, with food dyes being linked to behavioral issues including hyperactivity and ADHD as well as other health concerns. Here’s the lowdown on what we know about food dyes, how to spot them and how to find healthy options for your child.

Adorable girl sit with set of good in shopping cart in supermarket

By Dr. Suzanne Bartolini, N.D.

Food dyes, also referred to as “food coloring” or “food additives”, are nothing new. Saffron, for example, was a popular coloring agent in food as far back as the Roman Empire and ancient Egypt. The difference is that in recent years, food dyes have changed. Most manufacturers now use artificial chemical dyes that are petroleum-based.

While there are more and more companies going back to nature to brighten food, most use chemical dyes which are less expensive and produce more vibrant results than most natural colorings. Here’s what I’ve learned about the role of food dyes and their potential impact on children’s health.

How are food dyes used?

Food coloring is used by manufacturers to enhance color, increase shelf life, and to improve the overall texture and appearance of a product. You’ll find food dyes in countless items, including packaged and processed foods, beverages, condiments, candies, desserts and even salmon. Dyes can make foods look fresher, more exciting and even healthier by simulating the presence of healthy and colorful fruits and vegetables.

How safe are these food dyes?

In recent years, there has been concern about the adverse health impacts of these chemical food dyes, especially on children. Here are some of the notable issues:

  • Ongoing research is finding a link between food dyes and behavior in children ranging from hyperactivity to ADHD. Because many of these dyes are found in children’s foods, health professionals believe they are a contributing factor to restless and agitated behavior, concentration issues, and hyperactivity.
  • Another major point of contention in the food dye debate is whether or not food dyes have a connection to cancer. According to the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, many of the commonly used food dyes are known to be contaminated with known carcinogens.
  • More research is showing that these artificial food substances can contribute toallergies and various other allergic reactions such as skin irritation, as well as to anxiety, headaches, and migraines (in both children and adults). They also contribute to the obesity epidemic by attracting children to highly processed foods that have little to no nutritional value.

How to spot artificial dyes on food labels

Companies are required to list food dyes in their list of ingredients, so take a moment to read the label before you buy. In the United States, the most commonly used food dyes include:

  • Blue #1 (“brilliant blue”)
  • Blue #2 (“Indigotine”)
  • Green #3 (“fast green”)
  • Red #40 (“allura red”)
  • Red #3 (“carmoisine”)
  • Yellow #5 (“tartrazine”)
  • Yellow #6 (“sunset yellow”)

What are some healthy alternatives?

The easiest way to steer clear of food dyes is to eat freshly prepared foods wherever possible. Keep pre-packaged foods with unnecessary preservatives and additives like food dyes to a minimum, and seek out wild salmon when possible.

Luckily, more and more companies are responding to consumer concerns by using healthier additives in their packaged and processed foods. These food colorings come from pigments of vegetables and minerals. Examples of these natural additives include: saffron, paprika, turmeric, beet powder, annatto extract (a tropical tree), carotene, lycopene and elderberry juice.

By understanding more about what goes into our children’s food, we can make choices we feel good about and help our kids feel great.

Dr. Bartolini is a Naturopathic physician with clinic locations in Toronto and Oakville. For more information, please visit


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