A graduate of the George Washington University Medical School Board, Dr. Sainsbury is certified in emergency medicine. He was a full-time emergency physician for 25 years, has lived on the Central Coast since 1990, and has written for many magazines. He currently has a house call practice here on the Central Coast and visits Africa yearly to help patients and student doctors there. Visit Dr. Sainsbury.com
Red Dye and Hyperactivity
by Steve Sainsbury, MD
Remember Red Dye #3? It was supposed to bring about a variety of medical ills, not the least of which was hyperactivity in children. In the 1970's, Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a pediatric allergist from California, suggested that there was a definite link between certain food additives and ADHD. The Feingold diet, void of such substances as Red Dye #3, was supposed to cure, or at least greatly decrease, hyperactive behavior. Yet the subsequent research to prove Dr. Feingold's contentions have been mixed at best.
As a result, in 1982, the National Institutes of Health, over the objections of many parents, concluded that there was no evidence to support Feingold's claims. Nonetheless, some recent studies have suggested that reducing food additives may benefit a small subset of ADHD children.
For example, in one well-designed study, researchers gave one group of ADHD children foods without additives that looked, tasted, and smelled exactly like the additive-rich food given to a second group of ADHD children. For the vast majority of subjects, when evaluated by impartial observers, there was no difference, But—and this is important—for about one in a hundred ADHD children, the removal of additives showed a significant decrease in hyperactive behavior. This susceptibility appears to be genetically linked and quite real.
So . . . Red Dye #3 appears to be a major culprit for a small percentage of ADHD kids. The dye is used in a variety of foods such as soft drinks, candy, desserts, processed cheese, and many other foods.
If you suspect that your child might be one of the susceptible ones, why not try the followinga safe and well-controlled experiment? Periodically mix a food containing red dye (like red Jell-O) into a strong tasting red food like spaghetti or pizza sauce. Try to mix the dye in without changing how the food looks or tastes. Then have your spouse or some other observer, without telling them when you have added the dye, observe your child. Better yet, take a video of your child's behavior after a few ingestions of both dye-added and dye-free foods. Show the video to another observer to evaluate. If their observations conform that increased ADHD behavior occurs when the dye is added, you have your answer.
Regardless of whether your child is, or is not, susceptible to Red Dye #3 or other food additives, it makes good nutritional sense to reduce your child's use of foods that contain the dye—they tend to be of the sugary, empty-calorie variety that provide minimal nutrition. And the extra attention that parents show towards their children's diets can only reap a host of other benefits.
But may I suggest that parents try to relax about this issue. I have seen some parents become so obsessed with their children's diets, that they end up causing the very behaviors they are trying to avoid. An occasional carrot (even one made of red Jell-O) will engender desired behavior much better than wielding a stick of guilt and blame.
Mountain Gorilla image on banner by Steve Sainsbury, taken during from one of his stays in Rwanda.