Food Dyes: Are we being Overly Cautious or Indifferent?

by Katie Andrews

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When considering “kid friendly” foods, images of blue yogurt from a tube, neon green fruit roll-ups in the shape of cartoon characters and bright yellow macaroni and cheese are most likely the first to come to mind. Although brands have attempted to redefine colored products in “clear” formats (Crystal Pepsi being the most famous, short-lived attempt), the products failed, and familiar coloring was immediately replaced. As the New York Times recently pointed out, colorless food just doesn’t appeal to the mind or stomach the same way as a hand covered in yellow Cheetos cheese.

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But are we feeding our children’s eyes at the cost of their minds? The issue of the link between consumption of artificial food dyes and hyperactivity in children went in front of an advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this past March, and after two days of deliberation they came up with a response: we just don’t know. The supposed link between food dyes and hyperactivity in children has been debated since the introduction of the Feingold Diet in the 1970s. After 40 years of discussion, scientists and researchers are still unable to reach a conclusion.

The History of Color Additives

A color additive is defined by the FDA as “any dye, pigment or other substance that can impart color to a food, drug, or cosmetic or to the human body.” Historically, natural substances like paprika, turmeric, saffron, iron, lead oxides and copper sulfates were used to color cosmetics and hair dyes by the Egyptians. The first wine was artificially colored in 300 BC. By the 1880s, color additives made from by-products of coal were being used in foods and federal oversight became necessary. Butter and cheese were the first foods approved for the use of artificial coloring.

By the early 1900s, various foods were using artificial colorings, many of which were deemed unsafe (including lead, arsenic and mercury). The Food and Drugs Act was passed in 1906, prohibiting the use of poisonous colorings to conceal food of inferior quality. In 1927, the FDA was established and given the responsibility of enforcing the Food and Drug Act. By 1931, the FDA had deemed 15 colors approved for use in food (including six of the seven approved for use today): FD&C Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue FCF), FD&C Blue No. 2 (Indigotine), FD&C Green No. 3 (Fast Green FCF), FD&C Red No. 3 (Erythrosine), FD&C Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine), and FD&C Yellow No. 6 (Sunset Yellow).

Although the FDA faced numerous issues with dangerous cosmetics (in the 1920s-1930s an eyelash dye caused blindness in women), it wasn’t until 1950 that the first color additive proved dangerous in food. Children fell ill from eating Halloween candy containing FD&C Orange No. 1, an approved food color additive. The legislation regarding food safety that followed led to the Color Additive Amendments of 1960, restricting the use of approximately 200 color additives in use at the time until they were deemed safe (many of which are still not deemed safe).

From Color Additives to Food Dyes

Today, we generally refer to color additives in our food as food dyes, or the chemicals that lend the Doritos their fiery, orange color. The regulation of color additives still remains the responsibility of the FDA, who maintains a Code of Federal Regulations listing the additives that are safe for use within foods and requires that additives be identified on ingredient labels. The FDA is also responsible for assuring that newly manufactured color additives meet the requirements of their regulations, which they accomplish with batch inspections (16.5 million pounds of additives were certified in 2002, much for use in foods).

But the term ‘color additives’ falls short with most consumers; instead, the term ‘food dyes’ strikes a more familiar chord due to the brightly colored hue they leave in their wake. These are the substances that make Kool-Aid green, Jello red and Cheetos orange. They cause blue tongues, stained fingers, and are often associated with foods that cause a quick boost of energy followed by a precipitous crash. But can they actually be linked to causing hyperactivity in children?

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Food Dyes and Hyperactivity

Hyperactivity in children, clinically diagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is characterized by inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity or a combination of those behaviors. Although there is no proven method of prevention, ADHD can be treated and controlled when identified early. As of February 2010, it was believed that ADHD affected 3-5% of school-age children, making it the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder among children. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, children with untreated ADHD are more likely to fail out of school, have trouble with the law or abuse drugs or alcohol.

Although awareness surrounding ADHD has grown in recent years, especially with the introduction of medications that promote calming effects among children (Ritalin and Adderall being the most recognizable), scientists have yet to determine a clear cause for ADHD.

The debate surrounding food dyes and ADHD may have begun over 40 years ago, but the issue has yet to reach any resolve in the fields of science and research. Just last year, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) published “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,” outlining the possible risks associated with the consumption of food dyes. Although the report focuses on more measurable outcomes like organ damage, cancer and birth defects, the authors also state that they would be “remiss” not to note the association between food dyes and hyperactivity. A meta-analysis of studies from 2004 is referenced as evidence of “a cause-and-effect relationship between food dyes and hyperactivity,” however upon further examination, the authors actually state: “neurobehavioral toxicity may characterize a variety of widely distributed chemicals.” They also note that the greatest effect sizes were found in trials that pre-screened for hyperactive responsiveness and that only 2 of the 15 trials included in their findings received their “top validity score” (most lost points for failing to discuss procedures of allocation, more commonly known as improper randomization).

Two British studies found somewhat more compelling results, although their conclusions still point to the need for additional research. A 2004 study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that the removal of artificial food colorings and sodium benzoate (a preservative) from foods caused a significant decrease in the hyperactivity of both hyperactive and non-hyperactive children. However, these findings were based on parental reports and were un-verifiable in clinical settings. A 2007 study published in the Lancet found more conclusive results, stating that children who consumed a drink containing food color and additives versus a placebo experienced a greater increase in hyperactivity. However, their findings were limited to only one of the food color and additive beverages they administered; the other beverage was not found to have significant effects versus the placebo.

So, Are They Safe or Not?

Although the study findings may not have been wholly conclusive, the British government did institute a voluntary ban of food colorings in 2009, followed by a 2010 law requiring labeling on foods containing colorings. The labeling would specifically need to warn consumers that the product “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

Measureable results of the ban regarding reduced hyperactivity in children aren’t available at this time, but visible results can be seen on the foods themselves.

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Nutri-Grain Bars, distributed both here in the US and in the UK, are a clear example of the effects of the food coloring ban across the pond. While the US product still lists Red No. 40, Yellow No. 6 and Blue No. 1 as ingredients, the UK product lists Beetroot red, Annatto and Paprika extract. Kraft’s Guacamole Dip, containing Yellow 6, Yellow 5, and Blue 1 but less that 2% avocado, and McDonald’s Strawberry Sundae, containing Red 40, are additional examples of the effects of the ban (both brands are available in the UK dye-free). The obvious question becomes, if these large food companies are doing it over there, why can’t they do it here?

The answer: they can, but no one is forcing their hand. The best conclusion that came out of the FDA’s recent deliberations is that more research is needed to determine the effects of these food dyes on children. Rather than err on the side of caution, the responsibility is placed in the hands of the consumers to carefully read labels and vigilantly monitor their children’s diet. However, trying to compete with the brightly-colored array of foods marketed to children is a daunting task for any parent.

Americans today are fighting back against the concept of banned foods. Whether it is pizza in the lunch line, fried foods containing trans fats or chocolate and strawberry milk in the elementary school, many Americans want what they want, when they want it. But at what cost? Although the concept of “Big Brother” isn’t appealing to most, we must step back and consider the role of food dyes in our society and the effect they may have on a child’s dinner plate. Are food dyes causing hyperactivity in children? We may never be sure. But what benefit are we gaining from keeping them so prevalently in our food system? Gray popsicles and black-and-white birthday cakes do not have to be the face of our children’s dietary future, but nor do behavioral issues we could have avoided.

Katie Andrews is a 1st year Nutrition Communications student also pursuing the DPD credits for her dietetic internship. She loves writing about all things food and nutrition – if you’re looking for a more regular dose of her opinions on recent nutrition news or pictures of her adorable frenchie Hugo, check out her blog at theaspiringrd.com!

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