Diet & ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may not be cancer, but it can be torture for children and their parents. The syndrome seems almost benign to outsiders; what's the big deal if a child is more restless or less attentive than his or her peers?

In reality, the condition can have a devastating effect on children and their families. ADHD may mean that a child can't pay attention in school, can't do his or her homework, and may have difficulty making friends.

Hyperactivity has become so widespread--or is now so much better diagnosed-that millions of children are treated for it. According to one study, 6 percent of males under the age of 20 use Ritalin (methylphenidate) or some other amphetamine-like drug.

No one knows why the percentage of children (and adults) who are being treated for ADHD has skyrocketed in recent years. But one substance that triggers behavioral problems in some children has been identified: synthetic food colorings.

More than 30 years ago, the late Dr. Ben Feingold, a pediatric allergist in San Francisco, shocked the nation when he claimed that his patients improved when he took food dyes and other ingredients out of their diets.

Controlled studies in the late 1970s and the 1980s found that some ingredients had a detectable impact on at least some children. (See our report, Diet, ADHD & Behavior, at Most studies tested food dyes, though some also found that wheat and dairy foods affected behavior.

Until recently, doctors, parents, and health officials have largely ignored diet's contribution to ADHD. That began to change after the British government commissioned new studies that confirmed the influence of food additives on behavior, even on some children not diagnosed with ADHD.

Now Britain is pressing companies to eliminate food dyes from their foods. And it's working. All Lunchables sold in Britain, for example, are free of dyes. (That's not true of Lunchables sold in the United States.)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which sponsored one of the first small studies that found an adverse effect of food dyes, has kept its head planted firmly in the sand. In fact, it co-published--with the food industry--a pamphlet with the Orwellian title Food Color Facts. The pamphlet declares that there is "no evidence" that colorings affect behavior.

Food dyes are certainly not the only cause of ADHD. But they could be the most easily controlled.

Dyes confer absolutely no health benefits. Their primary purpose is to mask the absence of real fruit or other colorful ingredients.

It's high time that the government eliminated dyes from the food supply--starting with foods that are marketed to children. That includes candies, candy-like cereals, gelatin desserts, and practically any package with a cartoon character On the front.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D. Executive Director Center for Science in the Public Interest

P.S. If you're a physician who has used diet to treat children with ADHD or a researcher who has worked on the issue, please let us know at

Some Lunchables sold in the United States contain food colorings, Not so for Lunchables sold in Britain.

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