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Do Elimination Diets Really Eliminate ADHD?

If the artificial dyes in food cause behavioral problems in kids, should we eliminate food coloring altogether?

If the 15 million pounds of artificial dyes approved for food use in the United Sates—some of which were derived from coal tar and petroleum—are being implicated in behavioral problems, especially for those kids already diagnosed with ADHD, should we eliminate foods containing added food coloring altogether?

Presumably, you'd have fewer kids bouncing off the walls. As early as the 1970s, Dr. Benjamin Feingold, whose organization has been lobbying the FDA to change its labeling rules, advanced this hypothesis. Forty years later, there's still no scientific consensus on the benefits of eliminating food coloring.

Last week, the most recent addition to the sizeable volume of literature on the subject was published in The Lancet. The study involved 100 children in the Netherlands and the authors suggested that temporarily eliminating all but "rice, meat, vegetables, pears, and water" worked as a useful diagnostic tool in identifying whether a diet had been causing the disorder. Those children "who react favorably to this diet should be diagnosed with food-induced ADHD and should enter a challenge procedure to define which foods each child reacts to, and to increase the feasibility and to minimize the burden of the diet." In other words, these "elimination diets" did work for some children in some cases.

While it remains difficult to pinpoint a single environmental or social cause for any behavioral change, the debate over artificial food colors brings us to the larger question about food in the Anthropocene: What happens when we add minute amounts of substances as diverse as MSG, caffeine, and sodium nitrate to foods? Is it different when those substances are food dyes that were never considered food to begin with? And should we be turning back the clock and adopting a diet from our evolutionary past in response?

Illustration via National Institute of Health's "Defined Diets and Childhood Hyperactivity," 1982.

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