June 3, 2008— -- Aunt Jemima Blueberry Waffles are blue, but not from blueberries. Kraft Mac and Cheese is yellow, but not from the cheese. Fruity Pebbles, Fruit Roll-Ups, Pop Tarts? They all contain chemical food dyes.
And now some people believe that dyes used to make food look fresh could be so bad for children's health that they should be banned.
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The Center for Science in the Public Interest today called on the Food and Drug Administration to ban artificial coloring in all U.S. foods based on a controversial claim that artificial coloring is behind the rise in kids' behavioral problems, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
"I think it's crystal clear the dyes affect kids' behavior," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. "The tougher questions are how many kids, and to what extent is their behavior affected? But time is long overdue to get rid of these dyes from the food supply. Let scientists study them in a laboratory."
To others, however, that connection is far less clear.
"I would say, no, the jury is not still out," said Robert Brackett, senior vice president and chief science and regulatory affairs officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C. "I think the vast preponderance of scientific evidence shows that these products are safe. We have seen nothing conclusive that has any link whatsoever between hyperactivity and food colors as approved food colors."
The FDA also maintains that there is no evidence of a link.
But some parents are breathing easier, having removed artificially colored foods from their kids' diets.
Judy Mann of Silver Spring, Md., whose 10-year-old son Jake Kushner suffers from ADHD, said she had tried everything to confront her son's disorder, such as eliminating gluten, eating organic and visiting a psychiatrist and a psychologist.
After looking at the ingredients in buttered movie theater popcorn following one of Jake's outbursts, she became convinced that food dyes played a part in his explosive behavior.
"We started not eating popcorn at the movie theater and he stopped having problems after the movies," Mann said.
"And then a few weeks after, he had five Skittles … and he hit the roof," she added. "And that's when we were sure it was the dyes and not the sugar. And since we've cut them out, it's been an amazing difference."
The American Psychiatric Association estimates that 3 to 7 percent of children have ADHD, and boys are diagnosed with ADHD about three times more than girls. Several factors may contribute to the risk of developing the disorder, including heredity, difficult pregnancies, prenatal exposure to alcohol and tobacco, and excessively high body lead levels, according to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Landover, Md. But there is no conclusive research to determine how dietary issues play a part, according to the advocacy group.
Still, proponents of a ban said their call for prohibiting food dyes has legs to stand on.
A study published in 2007 strengthened their argument when researchers found a slight increase in activity level linked to food dyes. In Britain, the government is so concerned about the perceived connection that it has pressured food companies to switch to natural colors. Nowadays, a strawberry sundae at a London McDonald's contains real strawberries, whereas the U.S. sundae is red thanks to Red #40, Jacobson said. He said Kraft's Oscar Meyer Lunchables kids' meals, Starburst Chews, Skittles and M&Ms are likewise dyed in the United States but not in the UK.
"Absolutely, the dyes can be eliminated," Jacobson said. "They're unnecessary, they have no health benefits to the consumers whatsoever. … They only pose a risk and that risk is intolerable."
Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Schneider Children's Hospital in New York, said the 2007 study's data is not compelling and did not address ADHD at all. Adesman said further research is necessary.
"If consumers are concerned, all of the colors are listed on the labels," Brackett said. "So they can simply go to the label and look for colors, and if they choose not to buy those colors, there are alternatives that don't have those colors in them."
ABC News' Brian Hartman, Joanna Schaffhausen and Randy Gyllenhaal contributed to this report.