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Are Your Children Getting High Doses of Food Dye and Sugar?

Some popular brands of cereals and candies contain unexpectedly high levels of food dye. Research in mice links this to bowel inflammation.

Some parents are unwittingly feeding their children high doses of food dye. Pediatricians may worry about the effects on kids’ behavior. In addition, a recent study suggests we should be looking at the digestive tract.

Red Food Dye Alters the Lining of the Digestive Tract:

Researchers have discovered that Allura Red food dye, also called FD&C Red 40, disrupts gut barrier function (Nature Communications, Dec. 20, 2022). As a result, experimental animals develop inflammation in the digestive tract. Exposure to this dye early in life can lead to colitis and to symptoms similar to Crohn’s disease. This is troubling, since many of the foods containing this color are designed to appeal to young children: candy, cereal, soft drinks and some dairy products.

Scientists have long known that consuming lots of processed foods increases people’s risk of inflammatory bowel diseases. This food colorant is present in numerous processed foods. Perhaps that helps explain, in part, the damage such foods can do. According to this research, the dye increases the secretion of serotonin in the gut and disrupts the balance of microbes living there.

Previous Study–Food Dye Is Common:

In earlier research, investigators at Purdue University found that some popular brands of cereals and candies contain unexpectedly high levels of artificial colorings, up to 40 mg a serving (Clinical Pediatrics, online April 24, 2014). Most of the highly colored foods are also highly sugared, with up to 15 grams a serving, so they appeal strongly to children.

Scientists worry that some children may be especially sensitive to these chemicals and could react by developing behavioral problems.  As a result, parents might have to deal with temper tantrums, irritability or trouble sleeping. These vulnerable youngsters may also develop attention difficulties and hyperactivity.

It is difficult to argue that any child actually needs foods that contain such high levels of coloring and sugar. Most parents might want to leave them on the shelf.

Learn More:

We discuss healthful breakfasts for children (and the rest of us) and the harm excess sugar can do in our one-hour interview with Dr. Robert Lustig, Professor of Pediatrics at UCSF and author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. It is Show 947: Why Overdosing on Sugar Could Be Killing You. 

You may also be interested in a subsequent interview. We spoke with Dr. Lustig in Show 1145: Are Big Corporations Hacking the American Mind?

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Kwon YH et al, "Chronic exposure to synthetic food colorant Allura Red AC promotes susceptibility to experimental colitis via intestinal serotonin in mice." Nature Communications, Dec. 20, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-35309-y
  • Stevens LJ et al, "Amounts of artificial food dyes and added sugars in foods and sweets commonly consumed by children." Clinical Pediatrics, online April 24, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1177/0009922814530803
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