An advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) narrowly rejected a proposal to add warning labels to foods containing artificial colorings. The labels would have highlighted the possible link between food dyes and ADHD in children — but the panel ruled that there’s just not enough scientific evidence to warrant the warnings.

The UK now requires warning labels on foods containing six different varieties of food dyes, stating that they "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." But the US has been more reluctant to support the possible connection.

'The dyes are completely unnecessary, except to food companies, and are in junk foods that kids shouldn’t be eating much of anyway.'

The FDA’s panel did acknowledge that some studies suggest that "certain susceptible children…may exhibit a unique intolerance to artificial food colors resulting in typically small to moderate adverse behavioral changes." But the panel was not ready to advise the FDA follow the UK’s lead in placing a warning on food labels. While the FDA is not required to follow the panel’s suggestion, they typically do.

We spoke to food expert Marion Nestle, PhD, a professor and researcher at NYU, and author of several books, including Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety. Dr. Nestle says that she’s not surprised by the panel’s decision because the evidence for the dyes causing ADHD is just too weak right now. She suspects that FDA would like to see "at least one really well controlled and blinded study showing a statistically significant difference. No such study exists, at present. Those that show differences, tend to do so in small numbers of individuals, making any effect hard to explain." At present, there are only a few studies that suggest a link. One small 2007 study found a connection between artificial food coloring and/or the preservative sodium benzoate and hyperactivity in kids aged 3, 8, and 9.

Nestle points out that the only purpose of food dyes is to promote junk food. We don't need to color our food, but it makes it more attractive — studies have shown that people rate artificially-colored foods as tasting better when they are colored.

Nestle agrees that more research is needed, but says that she "certainly support[s] avoidance. The dyes are completely unnecessary, except to food companies, and are in junk foods that kids shouldn’t be eating much of anyway." Buying foods without artificial coloring certainly won’t hurt your kids, and it may help. Cutting down on junk food in and of itself is probably a wise move to make for your kids — and yourself.

The panel’s decision was announced on March 31.