At a two-day meeting starting Wednesday, an FDA advisory committee will decide whether available data links the dyes and the disorder. The panel will recommend Thursday whether the agency should further regulate dyes, do more studies on the issue or require better labeling of the additives. They could also recommend that the FDA do nothing at all.
The FDA has so far said there is no proven relationship between food dyes and hyperactivity in most children. But the agency said that for "certain susceptible children," hyperactivity and other behavioral problems may be exacerbated by food dyes and other substances in food.
Public health advocates agree that dyes do not appear to be the underlying cause of hyperactivity, but say that the effects of dyes on some children is cause enough to ban the additives. The FDA is holding the meeting in response to a 2008 petition filed by the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest to ban Yellow 5, Red 40 and six other dyes.
Michael Jacobson, the director of that group, said at the meeting Wednesday that the only reason that dyes exist in food is to trick consumers. Some manufacturers use less dyes in the same foods sold in Europe because of concerns there over hyperactivity.
"Dyes are often used to make junk food more attractive to young children, or to simulate the presence of a healthful fruit or other natural ingredient," Jacobson said. "Dyes would not be missed in the food supply except by the dye manufacturers."
Jacobson conceded that completely banning the dyes would be difficult, urging the FDA to at least put warnings on food package labels.
Scientists and public advocates have debated the issue for more than 30 years as the use of dyes in food has steadily risen. The advisory panel is sifting through a variety of studies over the two-day meeting, some showing more of a relationship between dyes and hyperactivity than others.
The food industry is warning consumers not to rush to judgment. David Schmidt, president and CEO of International Food Information Council Foundation, a food-industry funded group, said dyes help consumers enjoy their food by maintaining or improving appearance.
Suggesting a link between the color additives and attention deficit disorder in children "could have unintended consequences, including unnecessarily frightening consumers about safe ingredients that are consumed every day," he said.