The Food Dye Deception

Despite pictures of cherries and berries on the label, Tropicana’s Twister Cherry Berry Blast contains no cherry or berry juice. With only 10% real fruit juice concentrate, the beverage’s dark red color is achieved with Red 40, a popular petroleum-based dye linked to hyperactivity, aggressive behavior, attention deficit disorder and other behavioral problems, particularly in children.

Today, the use of food dyes extends well beyond the beverage aisle and can be found in a widespread variety of products filling supermarket shelves. Betty Crocker’s Carrot Cake Mix substitutes real carrots with “carrot flavored pieces” made with corn syrup, flour, corn cereal, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and/or soybean oil, a small amount of “carrot powder,” unspecified artificial color, Red 40 and Yellow 6. Vlassic and Mt. Olive pickles appear greener and fresher thanks to Yellow 5; Kraft’s Light Catalina Salad Dressing is infused with Red 40; and Pepperidge Farm’s Pumpernickel Bread is darkened with caramel coloring and cocoa. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has concluded that Americans are consuming five times more food dyes today than they were in 1955 and 50% more than they were in 1990.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) believes it’s time American consumers are clearly warned that they are purchasing dye-enhanced foods and beverages. Last week, the nonprofit filed a petition with the FDA urging the federal agency to require “Artificially Colored” be placed on front labels right next to the product’s name. CSPI says the public would support this decision, citing their recent survey that found three-quarters of Americans would favor mandatory disclosure of artificial additives on front labels.

“Betty Crocker is certainly free to make virtually carrot-less carrot cake, and Tropicana is free to make berry-less and cherry-less juice,” says CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “But consumers shouldn’t have to turn the package over and scrutinize the fine print to know that the color in what are mostly junk foods comes from cheap added colorings.”

According to the 2010 report “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risk”, authored by Jacobson and Sarah Kobylewski, Ph.D. Candidate in the Molecular Toxicology Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, food dyes serve a solely cosmetic purpose with zero health benefits and, in addition to their association with behavioral problems, are impure chemicals that may be contaminated with unregulated toxins and carcinogens.

Bans of Red 40, Yellow 6 and Yellow 5, which account for 90% of U.S food dye additives, have already been passed throughout Europe. Foods and beverages sold by McDonald’s, Mars, Kraft, PepsiCo, and other major U.S. multinational companies that contain artificial dyes in the U.S. have natural ingredients in the United Kingdom.

The CSPI’s current petition is less drastic than their unsuccessful 2008 campaign to ban food dyes completely, however new labels may prompt more American families to demand alternatives or to rethink unhealthy choices that may contribute to childhood obesity and behavioral problems.

“What’s the benefit [of food dyes]?” asks Jacobson. “To make junk food even more appealing to children than it already is?”