RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Some of the colors in kids' cereals, candies and processed foods look like nothing that came from nature. In fact, artificial food dyes are made out of petroleum. Those dyes have been used for decades. Some studies suggest a link between the dyes and hyperactivity.

The Food and Drug Administration will begin evaluating those studies today. NPR's April Fulton has more.

APRIL FULTON: Years ago, Christine Woodman wondered whether her kids had ADHD. She noticed Dawnielle and her brother were having trouble completing even simple projects in elementary school and were way too reckless at home.

Ms. CHRISTINE WOODMAN: It was things like taking sleeping blankets and trying to ski them down stairs.

FULTON: Her daughter Dawnielle's 19 now, but she still remembers those days.

Ms. DAWNIELLE WOODMAN: It was really fun and funny until I got my head stuck in the wall.

FULTON: Mom Christine was reluctant at first to take her kids to the doctor though. She wanted to take a natural approach first. On the advice of friends, Christine cut out foods with artificial coloring, but Dawnielle didn't really go for it.

Ms. D. WOODMAN: I remember dinosaur eggs. They had the oatmeal dinosaur eggs and they had those little red food dye little dinosaurs in it. And I remember, if I take those dinosaurs out, can I have the oatmeal?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. C. WOODMAN: So I made oatmeal with blueberries and soy milk and thought that you would be happy with it.

Ms. D. WOODMAN: I was not. That was not a good replacement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FULTON: Despite their laughter now, it was tough. And after a year of trying various so-called elimination diets, Christine decided they weren't working. So she went to the doctor. He gave her a prescription for an ADHD medication.

Ms. C. WOODMAN: What was stunning to us was the difference.

Ms. D. WOODMAN: It was in fourth grade and I just remember that suddenly it was like my world came back together and I could do stuff.

FULTON: Dawnielle went from being the class clown to the class example.

Lots of people try diets to address kids' behavior and many say they work. The diet idea dates back to the 1970s, when pediatrician Benjamin Feingold first claimed that there was a link between behavior and food dyes. And let's face it, artificial food dyes aren't essential.

Mr. MICHAEL JACOBSON (Center for Science in the Public Interest): Food dyes are added simply for their color to make foods fun. They serve no health purpose whatsoever.

FULTON: That's Michael Jacobson. He heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest. He wants the FDA to ban artificial food dyes, like Red Number 40, Yellow Number 5 and Yellow Number 6.

Mr. JACOBSON: And the reason is that there's substantial evidence that food dyes impair children's behavior, triggering hyperactivity.

FULTON: But other experts question the evidence.

Before today's meeting, the FDA released an analysis that finds no conclusive proof that food dyes cause hyperactivity in most kids.

Pediatrician Andrew Adesman of the Cohen Children's Medical Center on Long Island says the studies show a potential link for some kids but leave a lot of room for doubt.

Dr. ANDREW ADESMAN (Cohen Children's Medical Center): Some of the studies are difficult or imperfect in that they don't always tease out specific chemicals in isolation.

FULTON: That's the case with the 2007 British study that has become the center of the current debate. Three and eight-year-olds were given two kinds of drinks that contained a mix of dyes, and afterwards parents noticed their kids were a lot more hyperactive. But critics of the study say since the dyes were mixed together, it's hard to tell which might be causing a problem.

Julie Miller Jones is a nutritionist at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Professor JULIE MILLER JONES (St. Catherine University): It gives you pause, but it's certainly not convincing evidence that there's a problem.

FULTON: Pediatrician Adesman says if parents are concerned, cutting out food dyes won't hurt.

Mr. ADESMAN: We're not putting food coloring into broccoli or other fresh fruits and vegetables, and it's going into processed foods, concentrated sweets, things like that.

FULTON: Despite concerns with the British study, European lawmakers now require a warning label on foods that contain artificial dyes. Manufacturers over there have turned to natural dyes made from beets and turmeric. But the food industry says they're more expensive and less stable.

April Fulton, NPR News, Washington.

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