Child with stomach pain or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) symptoms

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HAMILTON, Ontario — As if there isn’t enough reason to keep children away from junk food as much as possible, new research suggests some products could be linked to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Researchers at McMaster University in Canada warn that a popular food dye aimed at kids could trigger IBD.

Increasingly common food dye Allura Red AC is used to add color and texture to sweets, soft drinks, dairy products and some cereals — often with the aim of attracting children. But new animal testing revealed the dye disrupts the way the gut barrier works, harming gut health, encouraging inflammation, and potentially influencing the development of IBDs such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.

Researchers say that by disrupting the gut barrier, Allura Red AC increases the quantity of serotonin produced. Doing so alters gut microbiota composition and makes people more susceptible to colitis.

Professor Waliul Khan, of McMaster University in Canada, says the worrisome findings are a significant advancement in public health. “This study demonstrates significant harmful effects of Allura Red on gut health and identifies gut serotonin as a critical factor mediating these effects,” he explains in a statement.

“These findings have important implication in the prevention and management of gut inflammation,” he continues. “What we have found is striking and alarming, as this common synthetic food dye is a possible dietary trigger for IBDs. This research is a significant advance in alerting the public on the potential harms of food dyes that we consume daily. The literature suggests that the consumption of Allura Red also affects certain allergies, immune disorders and behavioral problems in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Professor Khan said IBDs are serious chronic inflammatory conditions of the bowel, impacting millions of people worldwide. Exact causes of the diseases are not fully understood, but studies indicate they can be triggered by dysregulated immune responses, genetic factors, gut microbiota imbalances and environmental factors.

In recent years significant progress has been made to identify how genes are susceptible to IBDs and to understand the role of the immune system and host microbiota. However, Prof Khan says research has lagged when it comes to investigating environmental risk factors.

Environmental triggers include typical Western diets, comprised of processed fats, red and processed meats, sugar, and lacking in fiber. Such a diet also includes large amounts of additives and dyes, and the study results warrant further exploration of the link between food dyes and IBDs.

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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