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U of R professor testifies on food dyes

Bernard Weiss

A Food and Drug Administration food advisory committee met in Washington, D.C., last week to hear testimony and examine the effect food dyes have on hyperactivity and ADHD in children. Last Friday, the panel concluded that although more study is needed, for now there isn’t enough evidence to prove artificial food dyes contribute to hyperactivity in children.

Dr. Bernard Weiss, professor of Environmental Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Rochester, is a leading authority on the subject and testified before the committee.

Weiss has been studying the possible link between food dyes and neurobehavioral effects in children for over 30 years and believes there is a definite connection. In 1980, he published the results of his study in Science magazine, identifying the link.

“There are no nutritional benefits from food dyes,” Weiss explained. “There is substantial evidence accumulated over the last 30 years that show these additives can evoke an adverse reaction in children.”

Back in Rochester, Weiss said he was stunned by the panel’s decision to take virtually no action.

“I just can’t figure out how the committee came to the conclusion that you don’t need to put warning labels [on food with dyes],” he said. “They didn’t associate it with hyperactivity but my conclusion is there is an acute effect.”

Weiss said the effect in what he called “maladaptive children” can last for hours, and may result in tantrums and difficulty sleeping. He was one of the earliest scientists to examine the link, having worked with Dr. Benjamin Feingold in the 1970s to bring awareness to the issue.

The FDA did ban Red No. 2 in 1976 as a possible carcinogen, but Weiss said the FDA has done little “to scrutinize their effect on behavior” since then and the does not require dye manufacturers to test for neurobehavioral toxicity. The Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the panel to either ban food dyes or add warning labels.

The Center’s Dr. Michael F. Jacobson said the amount of dye used in sodas and cereals has increased over the years and children are more susceptible to its effects. He said natural additives such as beta carotene or blueberry juice could be used in place of the dyes. Jacobson asked Weiss to testify before the committee.

Weiss said the committee examined a 2007 study done in Southampton, England, that concluded that artificial dyes in combination with sodium benzoate increased hyperactivity in a study of 153 children.

“It was a very neat design with a placebo and a drink with food coloring additive,” Weiss said of the study. “The control variable colored drink made a significant difference.”

The FDA’s European counterpart now adds food dye label warnings to foods that contain them but the study failed to convince the 14 member FDA committee last week. The panel also heard from groups such as the International Food Information Council, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the International Association of Color Manufacturers, opposing FDA regulation of food dye and/or the issuance of warning labels.

IFIC President David Schmidt said coloring additives improve the appearance of food and “adds to our enjoyment of food.” The IFIC said without more evidence, consumers shouldn’t be frightened unnecessarily.

Despite his disappointment in the FDA committee decision, Weiss said legislators such as U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-28th, are knowledgeable of the food dye-hyperactivity link and might have better luck in warning the public of the danger in the future.

But for now, food products will remain just as bright and colorful, with the potential health risks.