Processed foods targeted to kids are just packed with artificial dyes that may cause or worsen ADD in some, according to a new study.

Purdue University researchers say many children today “could be consuming far more dyes than previously thought.” In the U.S., food and beverage companies disclose artificial coloring on labels, but do not give specific amounts, so the scientists packed their market shopping carts with products and tested them themselves.
Their findings were published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics.

In addition, high sugar levels are frequently found in foods containing artificial food colors (AFC). “They are rarely found in what could be described as healthy foods and often contain a large amount of added high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose,” the researchers say.

One of the largest sources of AFCs in the American diet is beverages, they say, not because beverages are colored more vividly but because of the large volume of fluid that is consumed in a serving.

AFCs are also found in cereals, popsicles, ice cream and sherbets, gelatin, puddings, cakes, cookies, boxed dinners, beverage syrups, snacks and candy. You pretty much know it when you see it, although AFCs are also found in some surprising places, such as cheese & peanut butter crackers, marshmallows and many salad dressings and cheese sauces.

The most commonly used AFC was Red #40 (82 foods and candies), with Yellow #5 (69 foods/candies) and Yellow #6 (62 foods/candies) next. Numbered artificial colors are derived from petroleum.

“Beverages, foods and sweets that contain AFCs usually contain lots of added sugars and are rarely nutrient dense,” the researchers say, pointing out as examples Nesquik and Shamrock Farms' “strawberry” milks, which use Red #40 or Red #3 but contain no strawberries.

In the study, some of the worst offenders were Cap'n Crunch's Oops All Berries (the No. 1 worst cereal, with 41 mg of AFCs and 15 g of sugar per serving), Fruity Pebbles, Trix and Fruity Cheerios. Among candies, those highest in AFCs included M&Ms, Reese's Pieces, Strawberry Twizzlers and Skittles. Also ranking high were candy corn, jelly beans and Peeps. Slushies were the worst frozen treats, with the “red” variety containing 22 mg of AFCs and 43 grams of sugar per serving.

The authors quote several behavioral studies that have shown that AFCs “caused significant hyperactivity-type changes in children both with and without ADHD.” Because of this, the European Union requires foods containing AFCs to carry a warning label that the product might cause “hyperactivity and inattentive behavior in some children.”

In the U.S., however, the FDA has concluded that there is “not enough evidence” to require similar labels here. (Big surprise.)

“Parents who wish to try an AFC-free diet should be encouraged to read ingredients lists on every food, candy, and beverage their children consume,” the researchers say, pointing out that AFCs can also be found in some toothpastes, mouthwashes and both prescription and over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, cough medicine and children's vitamins. If Yellow #5 or any color with a number is in the ingredients list, the product should be avoided for an AFC-free diet, as should products that list “color added” without specifying whether the color is from AFCs or natural dyes, such as Fiber One Chocolate RTE, Cheerios Multi Grain, and Hidden Valley Ranch Light.

Cereals that are AFC-free and contain low sugar include Kix, Cheerios, Grape-Nuts, Shredded Wheat, Corn Flakes and Kashi GoLean. And while you'll obviously want to avoid brightly colored icings, parents may be surprised to learn that AFCs are sometimes added to white icings, marshmallows and marshmallow sauce to make them look whiter.

Other hidden sources of AFCs: “Pickles contain yellow and blue dye to make the product look greener. Red #40 is used to color some barbecue sauces and cherry pie fillings. Yellow dye may be added to baked goods to make them look like they contain eggs. Blue #2 Lake and Red #40 Lake are used to color blueberries in some blueberry muffin mixes like Martha White and Betty Crocker.”

Products that use natural dyes include many Yoplait varieties and most dyed cheeses. Kraft recently announced that natural colors would replace AFCs in three of their macaroni and cheese products specially designed and shaped to appeal to children, although the change will not affect their classic elbow macaroni and cheese. The fast-food chicken chain Chick-fil-A has announced it is removing AFCs from its sauces, dressings and chicken soup. Mott's Medley and Ocean Spray Fruit Flavored Snacks are made from real fruit and do not contain AFCs. Berry Berry Kix and Special K Red Berries, while not necessarily low in sugar, are made with natural dyes.

For the full list of products tested and the results, click here.

Most of the foods are colored brightly with artificial dyes to make them more appealing to kids. Which is unnecessary, according to study co-author Laura Stevens, who told Reuters, “Kids are already obese.”

Ouch, lady.

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