ADHD News & Research

Red Dye No. 3 Banned in CA, Linked to Behavioral Problems

California is the first state to ban four food additives, including Red Dye No. 3, due to potential health risks. ADHD experts and food safety advocates urge the FDA to issue a nationwide ban.

October 19, 2023

Red Dye No. 3 is one of four food additives now banned by the landmark California Food Safety Act, the first law of its kind in the United States. The ban, which was signed on October 7 by Governor Gavin Newsom, cites research linking the additives to serious health risks but has drawn ire from some trade associations that accuse it of sidestepping the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).1 , 2 According to Food Safety magazine, the targeted chemicals are already banned in the European Union, in part, because studies have linked them to cancer, reproductive issues, and childhood behavioral and developmental problems.3

Known as the “Skittles ban,” the California law will take effect in 2027 and prohibit the manufacturing, selling, or distributing of food products containing potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil, propylparaben, and Red Dye No. 3, a synthetic dye made from petroleum that is found in foods, drinks, and medications.4

Joel Nigg, Ph.D., director of the ADHD Research Program at Oregon Health and Science University, called food dyes a “public health concern” that affects children with and without ADHD.

“There is enough evidence that food dyes affect behavior in some sensitive children with ADHD (and other children without the condition) to justify warning labels on foods containing synthetic dyes,” Nigg told ADDitude.

Concerns about increasing rates of ADHD and other behavioral disorders prompted the California Legislature to ask the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to conduct a food dye assessment in 2021. Its report, titled Health Effects Assessment: Potential Neurobehavioral Effects of Synthetic Food Dyes in Children, found links between several dyes and hyperactivity in children. The report argues that current federal levels for safe intake of synthetic food dyes may not sufficiently protect children’s behavioral health.

According to the OEHHA report, the FDA’s Acceptable Daily Intake levels (ADIs) for synthetic food dyes are based on 35- to 70-year-old studies that were not designed to detect the types of behavioral effects observed in children today. Comparisons with newer studies indicate that the current ADIs may not adequately protect children from the behavioral effects of some dyes, and suggest they should be lowered.2

Is Red Dye No. 3 a Health Risk?

Red Dye No. 3 was approved for use in food in 1907 but was banned in cosmetics in 1990 after studies found it caused cancer in lab animals. Food safety advocates, scientists, and doctors have urged the FDA to issue a nationwide ban on synthetic food dyes for years. (Red No. 3 is already banned in The European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, and Japan.)

“The FDA considered the issue in 2011 and again briefly in 2019 but opted not to take action,” Nigg said. “Since 2011, several new literature reviews have converged supporting the conclusion that food dyes increase the risk of ADHD symptoms.”

The California law may exert new pressure on the FDA to act.

“The primary purpose of this bill was to protect kids and families and consumers in the state of California,” State Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel told The New York Times. “But a secondary purpose here was to send a message to Washington that the FDA process is broken, and hopefully to spur momentum in Washington D.C., for real, significant change.”

“We’re stuck in this regulatory quandary where you’re not allowed to apply it [Red No. 3] to your skin, but you can ingest it in food — so it’s completely illogical,” Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports said in the same article.

In October 2022, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, and 23 other organizations, filed a petition formally asking the FDA to ban Red No. 3 in foods.

An FDA spokesperson told NPR the agency is “actively reviewing” the petition and will assess whether there’s “sufficient data” to revoke its use. The FDA spokesperson added that the agency “evaluates and regulates ingredients added to food to ensure that the authorized use of these ingredients is safe. This includes the four ingredients included in the California bill.”

How to Avoid Red Dye No. 3

In the meantime, Nigg advises children with ADHD to avoid foods containing food dyes — an admittedly difficult task. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Eat Well Guide, Red Dye No. 3 is used in nearly 3,000 products, including sodas, juices, yogurts, snacks, candy, frostings, instant rice and potato products, cereals, and boxed cake mixes. It is also used in medications including Vyvanse. 5

“Parents are well-advised to remove food dyes from their child’s diet if they can,” Nigg said. “It is on the list of things to try to do — along with other health actions like a healthy diet, exercise, and lower stress. I encourage parents to do what they can knowing it’s hard to do it all. Every bit can help.”

To start, Nigg suggests steering clear of most processed and packaged foods.

“Eat whole foods found on the perimeter of the grocery store — eggs, milk, cottage cheese, meat and poultry, nuts and seeds, fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes,” he said. “Families should also be cautious when buying seemingly ‘healthy’ foods, some of which contain synthetic dyes: pickles, flavored oatmeal, salad dressing, peanut butter, and microwave popcorn, for example. Synthetic dyes are also in toothpaste, medication, and cosmetics. Parents should read all product labels closely.”

To check for the presence of Red Dye No. 3, look at a product’s ingredient lists for “FD&C Red #3” and look for dyes in the “inactive ingredients” section for medications.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also advised parents to limit foods that often contain synthetic dyes, such as sugary drinks, juices, and candy, that may affect children’s behavior and attention.

View Article Sources

1 McCann, D., Barrett, A., Cooper, A., Crumpler, D., Dalen, L., Grimshaw, K., Kitchin, E., Lok, K., Porteous, L., Prince, E., Sonuga-Barke, E., Warner, J.O., Stevenson, J. (2007) Food Additives and Hyperactive Behaviour in 3-Year-Old and 8/9-Year-Old Children in the Community: A Randomised, Double-Blinded, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Lancet. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3.

2 California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. (2021) Health Effects Assessment: Potential Neurobehavioral Effects of Synthetic Food Dyes in Children.

3 Henderson, Bailee. (2023, October 9) California Food Safety Act Signed Into Law, Officially Banning Four Toxic Additives by 2027. Food Safety.

4  Osborne, Margaret. (2023, October 17). What to Know About California’s New Law Banning Food Additives, Including Red Dye No. 3. Smithsonian.

5 FD&C Red No. 3.