Colour Me Surprised: A Case for Food Colouring Causing ADHD
It was unlike anything the world had ever seen. It was a plate of foodstuff, dyed in colours mankind had only ever dreamed of! Tears fell as the planet’s first artificial food colouring (AFC), dubbed “mauve”, was unveiled in 1856. The upsides were obvious— these were cheap to make, and saved folks the hassle of squeezing pomegranates if they wanted a dash of colour for dinner. The downside was their origin in a pot of tar.
You may think that we’ve come a long way from ye olde “coal-tar colours”; but after dabbling in everything from arsenic to mercury, modern food colourings still hail from the lineage of petroleum. On the bright side, the ones on sale are no longer blatant poisons. However, critics have suggested that modern AFCs carry a different sort of risk— they might be linked to attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD) in children. What gives?
What can we do in the face of such irresistible colours?
The Prosecution: Food Colouring is Evil and Must Be Shot!
The symptoms of ADHD are well documented. Individuals with the disorder often become easily distracted and have trouble with complicated tasks. Further than that, some individuals may develop long-term hyperactivity at a young age.
On the other hand, the causes of ADHD remain elusive. A combination of how the brain develops and one’s genetic predisposition for the disorder are thought to be involved. The environment a growing child is placed in also seems to influence whether or not ADHD manifests itself. This includes factors such as pregnant mothers ingesting alcohol, or the children themselves taking in substances like lead. Could AFCs be another one of these sinister environmental causes?
To catch these dastardly chemicals on the scene of the crime, a group of UK researchers in 2007 decided to test mixtures of food colourings on kids. Around 300 children were fed either a colourful beverage, or an untampered drink. To everyone’s satisfaction, instances of hyperactivity went up after the kids had an AFC cocktail. These results have been seen somewhat consistently over the years, where an increase in hyperactivity seemed to come hand in hand with ingesting certain sorts of AFCs. Aha, the archetypal smoking gun has been identified! Bailiff, take them away!
Mum’s given me candy— Time to Rock n’ Roll
The Defence: Innocent, Your Honour!
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a caveat to the evidence above: they all relate to hyperactivity. While this is certainly a symptom of ADHD, you’ll need to observe it for at least 6 months before you can diagnose the disorder. As such, we haven’t yet proven anything just yet.
An alternate explanation could be that rather than food colouring causing problems outright, some ADHD children are just more sensitive to AFCs, in the same way that they may be sensitive to ingredients like wheat and eggs. Taking these ingredients out of their foods have been shown to improve symptoms in a small number of patients. As such, rather than being the root of ADHD, perhaps food colouring simply pushes susceptible children over a hypothetical threshold into territory where we can now diagnose them with the disorder.
Think of it like an allergy. Peanuts may not cause allergies, but you could be allergic to a peanut. Similarly, maybe a child could just be hypersensitive to AFCs. They may then display ADHD, but the problem lies with the individual rather than the snack. AFC is innocent!
So what have we learnt so far? It’s tricky to prove any definitive connection between ADHD and artificial food colouring. While there seems to be some sort of relationship involved, the supplied evidence leaves much to be desired, and have left folks fighting over it for the past half century. However, until more concrete evidence comes to the table, AFCs have to be let off the hook.
To be on the safe side of things, Australia does impose Maximum Permitted Levels (MPLs) to regulate how much food colouring you can put into food products. Snack shoppers could also try having a look at ingredient labels for that popular “no artificial colours” tag too. Even if we’re pretty darn sure AFCs are innocent (until proven guilty), why take that chance?