WEDNESDAY, March 30, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- An expert panel convened by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is meeting Wednesday and Thursday to see if there's a link between commonly used food dyes and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and if so, what should be done.
The topic pits the food industry against some parents, public watchdog groups and academics who've long agitated for a closer look at the additives.
Right now, the FDA says there's not enough evidence to definitively say that food dyes contribute to ADHD, and no one is expecting a ban on specific food dyes anytime soon. However, the FDA is asking the panel if certain foods might need to contain a warning label, and if more research should be done.
The agency is not required to follow its panels' recommendations, but it usually does.
Artificial dyes are added to many foods including Cheetos, JELL-O, Lucky Charms, Pop-Tarts, Nestles Butterfinger, Hostess Twinkies and Frito-Lay Doritos, to name a few, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
And the FDA does have regulatory authority over food additives. For example, in 1976, Red No. 2 was banned because it might be cancer-causing.
This week's meeting is significant because it is "the first time the FDA has acknowledged that food dyes may affect children in a limited way," said Dr. David Schab, a psychiatric researcher and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia Psychiatry and the New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York City.
Schab, who's slated to testify at the hearing, called it "a big step forward."
The question the panel is dealing with is do the dyes cause ADHD, or might they simply trigger some nonspecific behaviors, such as irritability and insomnia, Schab said.
Jeff Cronin, a spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest -- which has long lobbied for a ban on the dyes -- said that "the evidence that artificial food dyes worsen some children's behavior is pretty convincing."
Cronin hopes the FDA panel will recommend warning labels on foods with these additives, and encourage companies to switch to safer colorings.
Given the studies that have been done so far, Schab said that he is also in favor of getting these artificial colorings out of foods.
"Because dyes are unnecessary and they do appear to have some risk, even if that risk is limited to a few people, they should be removed," Schab believes. "The behavioral risks are real," he said.
"I would like the FDA to eliminate dyes, but I would also be very happy if we would have a label warning, like the ones that protect Europeans," Schab added. "Labels that warn that these dyes have potential detrimental effects on behavior."
Based on its review of published studies, the FDA at this point says that "a causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established."
However, it goes on to say that for some children with ADHD and other behavioral problems, these dyes may exacerbate their problems. But dyes may not be the only food additive that has this effect, the FDA notes.
On the other side of the debate, Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, contended that "the safety of artificial colors has been affirmed through extensive review by the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority, and neither agency sees the need to change current policy."
Kennedy added that "All of the major safety bodies globally have reviewed the available science and have determined that there is no demonstrable link between artificial food colors and hyperactivity among children."
And another industry voice said that food aesthetics matter to American consumers, too.
In a statement, David Schmidt, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council, noted that "food colors add to our enjoyment of food by maintaining or improving their appearance."
"Without sufficient scientific evidence that a causal link truly exists between food colors and hyperactivity in children, communications that suggest a link could have unintended consequences, including unnecessarily frightening consumers about safe ingredients that are consumed every day," he said. "Misguided theories dilute the impact of advice from health professionals on methods that have been found through scientific research to be truly effective in treating ADHD, such as medication and behavior modification."
However, Dr. Roberto F. Lopez-Alberola, chief of pediatric neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, believes the dyes could have neurological effects.
"The European Food Safety Authority has made it law that foods that contain these additives have a warning label," he noted. "This is already old news in the Old World."
Lopez-Alberola said these dyes make foods more attractive, especially to children, and he speculates that part of the increase in ADHD and autism has resulted from food additives. "It's not the sugar, it could well be these colorants," he said.
In addition, the developing brains of children are particularly sensitive to additives like these, Lopez-Alberola noted. "These dyes could certainly have long-term impact on the neurodevelopment of the child," he said.
"The only purpose of these dyes is a cosmetic purpose, they serve no nutritional or preservative value. They are often used to make junk foods more attractive to children. So their continued use is just not worth the risk," Cronin said.
There are alternatives to chemical colorings, he pointed out. Cronin said that when warning labels were put on foods in Europe it caused many U.S.-based food companies to market natural-based food-colored products in Europe.
For more information on ADHD, visit the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.