More than five million children in this country are diagnosed with ADHD, but how many of them truly have the disorder? Could some of those children be eating something that only makes them appear to have the condition?
Research has suggested a link between children who are hyperactive and appear to have ADHD, and Red Dye 40.
Color additives have been used to enhance our food for nearly 150 years. The federal government began to oversee their use in the 1880s and in 1931 approved 15 dyes for food, medications, and cosmetics. Six of those colors are still being used today.
But do you know what the base ingredient is? Petroleum, which is why the safety of food dyes has been debated for nearly 80 years.
Lately the focus has been on Red Dye 40. Nearly a dozen studies since the 1980s show the dye may have an affect on children prone to hyperactivity.
Laura Kitchen doesn't need any research. She has seen its affects in her six year old son Thomas.
"He loves to play with LEGOs. He builds trucks together and builds trains. You can leave him alone in his room for a couple hours and he doesn't come down for anything... very self sufficient," says Kitchen.
But Laura began to notice a definite personality change.
"He was bouncing around non-stop just uncontrollably--wouldn't listen, wouldn't even focus on anything," explains Kitchen. She was worried that her son may have ADHD and took him to Grand Rapids Michigan neuropsychologist Dr. Michael Wolff who treats children with hyperactivity disorders.
Dr. Wolff recommended eliminating Red Dye 40 from Thomas' diet. "Some of our first responses here are to look at general health and to remove artificial food dyes which is a very common recommendation."
Laura noticed results right away. "When doing that, he's that sweet gentle kid all the time."
But after eating a food with Red Dye 40 there's a definite change.
"He just gets this really kind of aggressive look like you can see a change in him."
As proof, Laura allowed Thomas to eat some foods with red dye so we could witness the change: Red licorice and fruit rollups.
Before, Thomas calmly plays with his sister. Then after the Red Dye 40, it took less than 15 minutes before he was nearly uncontrollable. "He would say to me, I just can't control it I can't control what I do," says Kitchen.
Dr. Wolff, a neuropsychologist and the head of B.R.A.I.N.S. in Grand Rapids viewed the video. Before: "Everything's very solid. There's no tremoring, no disorganization. He's playing with toys with good intent."
But after eating Red Dye 40: "He's a little bit more snide in the way that he's looking. There's intentional pushing the limits here; a lot more animated and aggressive."
Classic signs of what Dr. Wolff calls an allergic reaction. "It can cause inflammation. Obviously the body is not used to taking a lot of petroleum-based foods and it's something a lot of our bodies are having to adapt to more and more," says Dr. Wolff. He describes that inflammation as a disconnect along the nerves running through the brain.
"Planning, reasoning and making decisions are all areas that seem to be influenced by areas that are sensitive to food dyes. You can see that activation even a little more here as to how it develops that hot spot in the right frontal part of the brain. It's too active and too engaged, it's hyper-excitable at this point," explains Dr. Wolff.
It's the part of the brain also associated with ADHD. "The primary reason may be there's more emotion in that right side of the brain, and it usually does affect children with ADHD or possibly make them look ADHD than the average child," says Dr. Wolff.
So why hasn't the FDA removed Red Dye 40 from its list of approved food additives? This is the statement the FDA sent WZZM after nearly two weeks of asking for an on camera interview.
"Individual anecdotal experiences from the elimination of a particular food item may not have been performed in a scientific manner and that many other factors may be responsible for any observed behavioral changes" - U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In March 2011, the FDA held a food dye hearing. The advisory committee listened to arguments against the use of food dyes, as well as new research conducted on children and the effects of food dye on their social behavior.
In the end, the Advisory Committee to the FDA found insufficient evidence to support the connection between artificial food colorings and children with ADHD. The committee asked for more research and is currently delaying any action.
When WZZM 13 asked where the FDA stands on artificial food dyes two years after that decision they released this statement: "The FDA continues to be engaged in the scientific and regulatory review of color additives in food and their potential impact on various populations, including children." - U.S. Food and Drug Administration
But that's not good enough for Laura Kitchen. "I don't know why the FDA even approves for dye, which is filled with chemicals to go into our food at all."
The FDA statement did not answer that question. But Red Dye 40 is clearly labeled on food ingredient lists and Laura admits it's becoming easier to find products without it. "Almost everywhere is doing better with going dye-free."
Whether or not that's a signal that Americans are ready for stricter artificial food dye regulations is debatable. Three years ago, the food regulatory body in the U.K. forced companies using Red Dye 40 in their products to put a warning label on the packaging letting parents know it could cause hyperactivity in their children.