Artificial food coloring affects EEG power and ADHD symptoms in college students with ADHD: a pilot study

Nutr Neurosci. 2022 Jan;25(1):159-168. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2020.1730614. Epub 2020 Mar 1.


Objectives: Removing artificial food coloring (AFC) is a common dietary intervention for children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but has not been tested in young adults. This pilot study examined the effects of AFC on ADHD symptoms and electroencephalography (EEG) in college students with and without ADHD.Methods: At baseline, control and ADHD participants completed the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS), simple and complex attention measures, and resting-state EEG recordings. ADHD participants (n = 18) and a subset of controls (extended control group or EC, n = 11) avoided AFC in their diet for 2 weeks and then were randomized to a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover challenge. Subjects received either 225 mg AFC disguised in chocolate cookies or placebo chocolate cookies for 3 days each week, with testing on the third day each week. Baseline comparisons were made using Student's t-test or Wilcoxon rank sum tests and challenge period analyses were run using General Linear Modeling.Results: The ADHD group had significantly greater scores on the ASRS (p < 0.001), confirming a symptom differential between groups; however, there were no differences in attentional measures or EEG at baseline. The AFC challenge resulted in an increase in posterior mean gamma power (p = 0.05), a decrease in posterior relative alpha power (p = 0.04), and a marginal increase in inattentive symptoms (p = 0.08) in the ADHD group. There were no effects of AFC in the EC group.Discussion: This study indicates that AFC exposure may affect brainwave activity and ADHD symptoms in college students with ADHD. Larger studies are needed to confirm these findings.

Keywords: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); adults; artificial food coloring; electroencephalography (EEG); food additives.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / chemically induced*
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / physiopathology*
  • Brain Waves / drug effects
  • Brain Waves / physiology
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Electroencephalography*
  • Food Coloring Agents / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Pilot Projects*
  • Students
  • Young Adult


  • Food Coloring Agents