Chemicals in food coloring make some kids hyperactive

In Living Color

When you say it, the word has to be muttered with just the right amount of contempt and anger: “Newman!”

Fans of the TV show Seinfeld will recognize this infamous reference to the scheming mailman who was Jerry’s arch nemesis.

I had a Newman moment when I was preparing today’s e-Alert and came across a new study in which St. John’s wort performed no better than a placebo in treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. When I looked at the list of authors of the study, there it was


Ring a bell? Just this past week, in Tuesday’s e-Alert (“Influence by the Numbers” 6/24/08), I told you about Joseph Biederman, M.D. – the prominent child psychiatrist from Harvard who spent the past ten years convincing colleagues far and wide that many cases of ADHD should actually be diagnosed as bipolar disorder.

Over the course of the past decade Dr. Biederman received well over $1 million in fees from drug companies as he aggressively promoted the use of powerful antipsychotic drugs in the treatment of “bipolar” children. So the idea that Dr. Biederman would assist in a trial of a non-drug therapy for ADHD is a disgraceful joke and immediately renders the outcome of this trial highly suspect, at best.

But the published study does offer an interesting detail. Apparently St. John’s wort is one of the top three botanicals used by parents who choose non-drug treatments to address ADHD in their kids. We’ll obviously need further studies (from reputable sources) before we can say for sure if this herb is actually effective in treating ADHD. But in the meantime, if you’re a parent or a grandparent of a child with attention and hyperactivity issues, where do you turn?

Actually, the better question might be: What should you turn away from?

The amazing difference

A 10-year-old Maryland boy named Jake was featured in a recent ABC News report about ADHD. Jake’s “explosive behavior” was out of control until his parents began restricting foods colored with artificial dyes. Jake’s mom told ABC that cutting the dyes out of his diet prompted “an amazing difference.”

But can you imagine trying to convince Kraft, General Mills, and other food giants to stop using artificial dyes?

Officials for The Center for Science in the Public Interest have imagined just that.

Earlier this month CSPI called on the FDA to protect kids by banning artificial coloring in all foods produced in the U.S. And here’s what they’re up against: Robert Brackett, the senior vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). Mr. Brackett told ABC: “I think the vast preponderance of scientific evidence shows that these products are safe.”

Notice he said the evidence shows the products are “safe” – saying nothing specific about hyperactivity. And how over-the-top is “vast preponderance”? When someone from a powerful organization like the GMA uses an overblown term like “vast preponderance,” you can pretty much bet that FDA officials have already prepared their rubber-stamped agreement that the evidence against artificial dyes isn’t sufficient.

After all, insufficiency is what the FDA does best.

Avoid the loophole

So parents who suspect that food dyes might add to their kids’ hyperactivity problems are basically on their own as far as the FDA is concerned.

But that might be a good thing. The FDA has fashioned a neat little loophole that food producers can use to essentially hide trans-fatty acids in processed foods. If artificial colors were banned from such foods, the ban could very well have loopholes that might actually make it harder for parents to figure out if foods contained offending dyes.

That’s why information is more important than an outright ban. Families need to be more widely informed that artificial food colorings may set off hyperactivity in children who are sensitive to color-chemicals. But in addition to checking ingredients labels, how do you figure out if your child or grandchild is sensitive in the first place?

HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., explains: “It’s amazing how many hyperactive children are chemically sensitive. If it’s not all of them, it’s a really high percentage, in my opinion (and I’ve treated more than a few). The trick is finding out what the sensitivity is, and that can take patience and a fair amount of Sherlock Holmes-type digging. There are, however, places to start, and most of them are right at home and cost zero to evaluate. Food allergies are chemical sensitivities, and they must be ruled out first.”

You can read Dr. Spreen’s full outline for assessing kids’ chemical sensitivities in the e- Alert “How to Dismantle an ’89 Ford” (6/3/02).

Hypericum Perforatum (St. John’s Wort) for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Adolescents” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 299, No. 22, 6/11/08,
“Are Food Dyes Fueling Kids’ Hyperactivity?” Lisa Stark and Kate Barrett, ABC News, 6/3/08,