Fooled by Food Dyes Synthetic chemicals color lots of packaged foods

Perhaps you round out your child’s lunch with healthy-sounding extras like cereal bars, fruit roll-ups, mixed fruit cups and fruit drinks. Most of these products contain synthetic food dyes, and a single item might contain as many as four or five.

food dye, Credit: Frankieleon, FlickrCCMost modern synthetic food dyes (aka artificial food colors) are manmade concoctions from petroleum, and several studies suggest these dyes worsen symptoms in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The connection to ADHD prompted Britain to phase out synthetic dyes by the end of 2009, and the European Union now requires that products containing certain dyes sport a warning label saying the food “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

Not so in the U.S. where an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just concluded an inquiry into the safety of synthetic food dyes in April 2011 and decided there was insufficient evidence to warrant tightening of regulations. The inquiry was prompted by a petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), to ban all synthetic dyes in foods based on research suggesting they pose cancer and allergy risks as well as hyperactivity in children.

From Candy to Salad Dressing

The FDA does not set limits on how much dye is allowed in foods, stipulating only that the amount should not exceed what is needed to achieve the desired effect. Consequently, the food industry adds more than 15 million pounds of synthetic dyes to processed foods annually, and per capita consumption has risen five-fold since the 1950s. The FDA’s primary form of oversight is to ensure that legal levels of contaminants like lead, arsenic and benzidine are not exceeded.

Although it should come as no surprise that vividly colored products like Lucky Charms cereal or M&M’s candy contain an array of synthetic dyes, they are actually added to most processed foods. Jell-O chocolate pudding mix contains Blue 1, Yellow 5 and Red 40. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese has Yellow 5 & 6. Maraschino cherries get their “day glo” red hue from Red 3 or Red 40 and even salad dressings can be dyed—Ken’s Steak House Lite Raspberry Walnut Vinaigrette contains Blue 1 and Red 40.

The Nutritional Abyss

CSPI released a report in 2010 titled “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks” which summarizes the available health safety studies in animals and humans. In addition to the body of evidence linking the dyes to hyperactivity in children, eight dyes have either been linked to cancer directly or through their contaminants. CSPI points out that children’s bodies are still developing, so they are particularly at risk.

Synthetic dyes have no known nutritional value. Their chief purpose is to increase visual appeal. They’re also generally cheaper, brighter and more stable than so-called natural food colorings derived from plants, minerals or animals. The list of FDA-approved sources for natural colorings is long and includes beets, carrots, grapes, tomatoes, elderberries, purple corn, red cabbage, sweet potatoes, annatto tree seeds, turmeric, paprika, chlorophyll, iron, titanium dioxide and a bug called Coccus Cacti L.

Any argument from the food industry that synthetic dyes are indispensable is easily countered by the fact that they have been largely replaced with natural alternatives, or simply eliminated, in Britain and Europe. For example, McDonald’s colors their strawberry sundaes with Red 40 in the U.S. but uses only real strawberries for color in Britain. Similarly, beetroot, paprika and annatto substitute in Britain for the three artificial dyes used in Kellogg’s Strawberry Nutri-Grain Bars sold in the U.S.

It’s up to consumers to express their preference for natural coloring agents—or no added colorings—by scanning product labels before purchasing. Because law requires that only artificial flavorings (not colorings) must be labeled on package fronts, look for the ingredients label where colorings are listed. And several brands of processed foods are marketed as free of all artificial ingredients and post labels to that effect right on package fronts.