Although there are many potential food triggers in any neurodivergent condition, the absolute top food trigger for ADHD is Artificial Food Coloring.

Of all the food ingredients that may aggravate ADHD, food coloring has been studied the most and is the ingredient that is consistently shown to correlate to behavioral symptoms. And no wonder: it’s not actually food! These are chemicals that are added to food in order to alter its appearance. And, get this…they’re made of petroleum. Most people can eat food coloring without noticeable reactions. But, about 10-15% of people experience changes in mood, hyperactivity, and/or impulsive behaviour when they consume food coloring – not ideal if you’re already dealing with ADHD.

Why is food coloring such a common food trigger in ADHD?

Nobody knows for certain but there are typically two hypotheses:

Hypothesis #1: The Blood-Brain Barrier

The Blood-Brain Barrier is a membrane that prevents substances in your blood from getting into your brain.  Some people’s barrier is more permeable (allowing more substances through).  Researchers have found altered levels of a protein in ADHD, which is linked to Blood-Brain Barrier permeability.  Therefore, it could be that kids with ADHD have a more permeable barrier, leaving them more vulnerable to chemicals.

Hypothesis #2: Detoxification & Zinc

Zinc is a crucial mineral in our detoxification systems.  Kids with ADHD tend to have lower levels of Zinc in their systems. This may adversely affect their detoxification systems. Sluggish detoxification can cause a build-up of chemical substances. As a result, kids with ADHD may suffer negative effects from these substances.

Regardless of why it is affecting symptoms, given that this is the top food trigger for ADHD, it’s worth cutting it out and observing whether or not your child’s symptoms improve.

Where is food coloring hiding? You Might Be Surprised…

1. Candy, icing, ice cream

It’s almost impossible to find a festive treat that isn’t laced with food coloring.  ADHD PRO TIP: companies keep popping up and offering dye-free alternatives for your special occasions.  A few candy companies that use natural coloring: Yum Earth and Squish (*Not all products from Squish are dye-free – you must read labels to be sure).  Also, Color Garden makes non-chemical food coloring for baking projects at home.

2. Vitamins, medicine

The very things that we buy to help our kids are sometimes providing a hefty dose of chemical coloring.  ADHD PRO TIP:  Look for dye-free versions and steer clear of ingredients with colors or numbers (ex: Red 40, Yellow 5). Also, avoid ingredients with the word “color” unless it specifies “natural color”.  Also, if your child takes any prescription or over-the-counter medicine, ask your doctor or pharmacist if there is a dye-free version available.  Certain pharmacies can order or make them for you (I have seen this with certain antidepressants). **Do NOT stop taking a prescribed medication without the advice of a doctor.

3. Not-So-Obvious Sources

ADHD PRO TIP: Just because something isn’t brightly colored, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have food coloring.  Companies sometimes add color to whole wheat bread, vanilla ice cream, and even brown breakfast cereals. Most often it is a yellow color that is used to make them appear a deeper brown color.  Getting into the habit of reading labels can be annoying but eventually, it becomes unnecessary, once you get to know “your brands” (the ones that your family enjoys and that don’t use food coloring).

Try Not To Get Discouraged

Avoiding ingredients due to ADHD (or any neurodivergent condition), can seem like a real bummer for your kids.  Try to keep two things in mind: 

#1 There is No Need to Feel Guilty for trying to improve their health.

As parents, we are experiencing unprecedented levels of guilt (thank you social media!).  We feel guilty for not spending enough time with our kids. We feel bad for not buying them the nicest clothes, or not creating “Pinterest-perfect” birthday parties for them.  Try to remember you are doing the absolute best job that you can and that is enough.  “Depriving” kids of chemical-laden foods that aggravate their behaviours isn’t cruel.  They will likely thank you for it down the road.

#2 You Can Still Have Fun With Food! 

Your child is not sentenced to a lifetime of boring food because of food sensitivity.  There are lots of easy ways to make food special without adding food coloring:

  • Arrange snacks into shapes (faces are easy) or words.
  • Serve food in fancy glasses or bowls – you can get really fancy, really cheap dishware at thrift stores (this makes the inevitable breakage easier to bear!)
  • Find interesting ingredients such as edible flowers to add to food.  These are available at many grocery stores and markets now. Use them to make salads, desserts, and drinks a little bit more special.
  • For a visual of these ideas, click here for a recent post I made.

Balanced nutrition is essential in supporting ADHD.  Cutting out artificial coloring is a great first step you can take to help your child. If you are ready to take the next step and work towards creating the ideal food plan for your child, click here to book a discovery call with me. Little by little, we can discover which foods can help them thrive.

Shawna XO