In January, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, wrote the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking it to require a warning label on foods containing Yellow 5, Red 40, and six other artificial food dyes and eventually to ban them. It made the same request back in 2008.

Some manufacturers are already responding to consumers who want products that don’t contain artificial colors. Most recently, Mars, the maker of M&Ms, announced it will phase out all artificial colors from its food products over the next few years.

But are the artificial food colorings in your children's breakfast cereal, candies, snacks and drinks actually bad for them? Can they make them misbehave in school, pay less attention to homework or generally act up?

They might not be helping, some experts contend. Here, what research has found, the FDA's stand on the issue and some expert advice for parents.

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“A small but significant deleterious effect”

Concerns about food dyes have centered mainly on their effect in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But other children may also be sensitive, says L. Eugene Arnold, MD, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University, Columbus.

He gathered information from published research and other data on artificial food dyes and behavior in children before speaking at an FDA Food Advisory Committee hearing on the behavioral effects of food dyes back in 2011.

Based on his review Arnold wrote, “Recent data suggest a small but significant deleterious effect of AFCs on children's behavior that is not confined to those with diagnosable ADHD.” While AFCS are not a major cause of ADHD, he says, they seem to affect children regardless of whether they have the diagnosis or not. His report was published in 2012 in Neurotherapeutics.

Even in kids without ADHD, the dyes could increase activity levels, make children less able to control their behavior and decrease attention, says Arnold. While concerns about the effects of food dyes on children with ADHD ''led the charge'' for the FDA to evaluate the issue, “The more we learned, the more it seems a general problem,” says Arnold.

The research is far from perfect, Arnold admits, and needs to be continued. In particular, he says, "We need some further research on dosage.'' The amount of food dye people eat has quadrupled in the past 50 years, he says. "In 1950 it was 10 or 12 milligrams per day per person," he says. "It was up to 62 milligrams in 2010."

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The FDA’s position

After the FDA listened to the evidence presented by Arnold and many others, it concluded that “relevant scientific data did not support a causal link between consumption of certified color additives in food and hyperactivity and other problematic behaviors in children."

The FDA said there is not convincing evidence that dyes cause ADHD, Arnold says, ''and that is probably correct.''

But the FDA committee did suggest “that additional safety studies, such as developmental neurotoxicity testing of the color additives, be conducted and that a robust intake estimate be calculated. Additionally, 57 percent of the members of the Committee voted against additional labeling requirements for foods that contain certified color additives.”

The FDA did not decide to require additional labeling of foods containing them, as the CSPI had requested.

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Arnold’s advice

Until more is known, Arnold has this advice for parents: "Try to avoid anything with artificial food colors. It doesn't have to be 100 percent [avoidance] unless the child is particularly sensitive. In moderation it's not likely to cause huge problems."

On the other hand, food dyes have no nutritional value, notes Arnold. Adding the dyes, he says, ''just makes food look prettier. We don't need to make food more attractive during an obesity epidemic.''

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Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist specializing in health, behavior and fitness topics.