The Link Between Red Dye 40 and ADHD

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ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a chronic condition that usually begins in childhood. ADHD can cause hyperactivity and impulsivity. Common symptoms include trouble paying attention, trouble controlling impulsive behaviors, fidgeting, and talking excessively.

While all kids have behavioral issues from time to time, children with ADHD experience severe behavioral problems more frequently than others. It’s estimated that about 9.4% of children in the United States ages 2 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. 

Red dye 40 is a food additive that adds color to food and cosmetics. Some food colorings, including red dye 40, have been found to exacerbate ADHD symptoms in some children.

This article will explain the link between red dye 40 and ADHD, as well as foods to avoid. 

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What Is Red Dye 40?

Red dye 40 is a color additive that changes a substance’s appearance. It is used in food and cosmetics and is made from petroleum. 

Red dye 40 is one of the most commonly used food dyes in the United States. It is estimated that up to 60% of calories consumed in the United States are from ultra-processed foods. Many processed foods contain food dyes like red dye 40. 

ADHD and Artificial Food Coloring

Researchers continue to study the link between ADHD and artificial food coloring. It is approved for use in foods by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Most children have no adverse effects from color additives in their food. However, certain children may be more sensitive to these additives than others. 

Consuming foods with red dye 40 may worsen symptoms in some children with ADHD. For these children, eliminating red dye 40 from their diets may reduce ADHD symptoms. In one study, researchers measured symptom improvement based on parental reports. Although parents’ perceptions are subjective, there seems to be strong evidence that removing red dye 40 reduced ADHD symptoms. 

It’s important to note that artificial food colors do not cause ADHD. One study found that removing artificial food colors from the diet had a statistically significant effect on ADHD symptoms, however. The authors noted that the improvements were modest but still statistically significant.

Another study found that artificial food colors likely increase hyperactivity symptoms in some children with ADHD. It is possible that up to 33% of children with ADHD may benefit from a restricted diet that eliminates color additives in food. The study also found that food colors exacerbate (worsen) symptoms of asthma, eczema, and migraines. 

In addition to red dye 40, sugar and sweetened foods and beverages have been found to negatively affect ADHD symptoms in children. 

Foods With Red Dye 40

Red dye 40 is present in several types of processed foods, especially foods that appear red or pink, including:

  • Breakfast cereal
  • Granola bars
  • Jell-O
  • Fruit snacks
  • Candy
  • Cakes
  • Chips
  • Flavored dairy products
  • Soda
  • Sports drinks 
  • Energy drinks 

Safe and Natural Alternatives to Red Dye 40

To avoid red dye 40, it’s best to make foods from scratch instead of opting for the processed versions. This is not always convenient or even possible for many families, but choosing natural alternatives where you can is worth it. Consider the following:

  • Offer your child water or 100% fruit juice instead of soda or sports drinks.
  • Choose cereals, such as Cheerios, without color additives. 
  • Bake desserts from scratch instead of using prepared cake mixes.

Recognizing Red Dye 40 on Nutrition Labels

The FDA requires that all foods that contain red dye 40 must list it as an ingredient on the label. Red dye 40 may appear as one of the following names:

  • Red dye 40
  • Red 40
  • Red 40 Lake
  • FD&C Red No. 40
  • FD&C Red No. 40 Aluminum Lake
  • Artificial colors
  • Artificial color added
  • Color added

Summary 

ADHD is a chronic condition that causes hyperactivity and impulsivity in children and adults. Red dye 40 is a food additive that adds color to food and cosmetics. Research has found that removing red dye 40 may improve symptoms in some children with ADHD. Children with ADHD may benefit from a restricted diet that eliminates color additives from their food. 

A Word From Verywell 

Managing your child’s ADHD symptoms can be overwhelming for any parent. It is especially difficult to determine which natural remedies are worth trying. Research shows that some children are significantly affected by red dye 40 in their diets. Consider asking your primary care provider or your child's pediatrician about trying a restricted diet to see if your child’s symptoms improve. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does red dye 40 affect behavior?

    Research shows that red dye 40 has been linked to increased ADHD symptoms in certain children. The increased symptoms include hyperactivity and impulsiveness. 

  • Does red dye 40 affect adults with ADHD as well?

    It is possible that red dye 40 affects adults with ADHD but more research is needed. The current studies have examined the effect of red dye 40 on children and used parental reports as their measurement. 

  • Which foods have the most red dye 40?

    The more colorful the food, the more dye it usually contains. To know if a food has a large amount of red dye 40, check the nutrition label. The FDA requires that the item’s ingredients be listed by weight. If red dye 40 is one of the first ingredients on the list, you can assume that the food contains a significant amount.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Trasande L, Shaffer RM, Sathyanarayana S; COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH. Food additives and child health. Pediatrics. 2018 Aug;142(2):e20181408. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-1408