When you picture artificial food coloring you probably think of bright candy and cupcakes or neon-colored soda and sports drinks, but these colorful foods aren’t the only place you’ll find synthetic dyes.
When we took a trip to the grocery store to investigate some seemingly “healthy” labels, we found these sneaky suckers in everything from yogurt, pickles, and breakfast bars to oatmeal, salad dressing and salmon. And the crazy thing is, they’re also in over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs, dietary supplements and vitamins!
America's lax labeling laws
What’s even more frustrating is that countries, like the U.K., have much stricter labeling laws pertaining to many of the same dyes the FDA approves. To avoid a big warning label on their packaging (and due to some being banned entirely), many companies have switched to natural coloring in their products abroad. But companies like Kraft, Pepsi Co. and General Mills (yes, the same companies that fill a majority of our grocery store shelves) that switched their product ingredients abroad, continue to use these banned or regulated dyes in their U.S. counterparts.
So, while the U.K. uses real cheese in their macaroni and cheese, the color in their U.S. counterpart may be yellow thanks to Yellow 5 & 6, not real cheese (even though they’re made by the exact same company).
The most common dyes used in food (and cosmetics) (3)
- Blue 1
- Blue 2
- Green 3
- Orange B (only approved for use in hot dogs and sausage casings)
- Red 2
- Red 3
- Red 40
- Yellow 5
- Yellow 6
- FD&C Lakes (which is a combination of dyes)
- “Artificial color” or “color added”
Artificial food dyes are made of WHAT?!
Artificial food dyes, which have long been controversial because of safety concerns, are made in a lab with chemicals derived from petroleum, a crude oil product (2). Ironically, petroleum is also used in asphalt, jet fuel, heating oil and gasoline. Sounds appetizing, right?
Some pose the argument that it’s safe to use petroleum because the refining process leaves only “the things we can eat.” But just because we CAN eat something doesn’t mean we SHOULD eat it, right?
The FDA’s advisory committee feels that there isn’t enough evidence to support the idea that artificial coloring isn’t enough of a problem to make changes because more research is needed. But shouldn’t some evidence be enough evidence? Why risk it when there’s essentially no benefit outside of aesthetics?
So what are the potential health risks?
- ADHD and other behavioral problems in children
- Food allergies and skin sensitivities
ADHD and behavioral problems
Children, who tend to ingest the largest amount of coloring due to so many “fun” brightly colored foods, are also at the greatest risk of side effects. Recent research has given weight to the theory that synthetic food dyes can trigger behavioral problems such as manic effects, hyperactivity and ADHD. What does this mean for our youth? The potential inability to focus and learn, all because of an artificially colored breakfast bar.
“AFCs are not a main cause of ADHD, but they may contribute significantly to some cases, and in some cases may additively push a youngster over the diagnostic threshold.” (5)
According to Dr. David Schab, who conducted the 2004 meta-analysis with his colleague Dr. Nhi-Ha T. Trinh: “The science shows that kids’ behavior improves when these artificial colorings are removed from their diets and worsens when they’re added to the their diets.” and “While not all children seem to be sensitive to these chemicals, it’s hard to justify their continued use in foods—especially those foods heavily marketed to young children.” (4)
Some food dyes have been linked to cancer in lab animals, but the FDA feels there’s too little evidence to support and warrant change.
According to James Huff, director or chemical carcinogenesis at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, “Because cancers may not show up until a rodent’s third year of life, corresponding to the time when cancers also are more likely to appear in humans, the two-year time frame for standard bioassays may reduce the likelihood a carcinogenic chemical will be identified.” (2)
So, what’s all that mean? The FDA feels testing results were inconclusive, but this could largely be due to inadequate testing of long-term effects.
Food allergies and sensitivities
In addition, artificial food dyes (especially Red 40) have been shown to cause allergies and hypersensitivity reactions, such as skin rashes and asthma symptoms. (7) (8)
So, why do companies use them?
Unfortunately, we tend to eat with our eyes and color is part of the perception that food tastes good. These dyes allow companies to trick consumers into thinking the colors in their food are derived from real fruits and vegetables, rather than synthetic chemicals.
So you’re telling me those blue bits in that tasty waffle mix may be blue thanks to Red 40 and Blue 2, not real blueberries? Yep, that’s right!
“The purpose of these chemicals is often to mask the absence of real food” and “to increase the appeal of a low-nutrition product to children, or both.” (4)
Companies use this to their advantage and draw us (especially kids) away from less vibrant, healthy whole foods and toward brightly colored, aesthetically pleasing highly processed foods. Sure bright color tends to look more appealing, but at what cost?
Tropicana Twister Cherry Berry Blast is a perfect example of this, containing absolutely no cherries or berries. You heard that right, the color of this “fruit juice” comes from Red 40.
In life, many of us base our decisions on risk versus reward.
If the benefits outweigh the risks involved, and what can be gained exceeds what can be lost, then a choice is much simpler, right?
Because there’s absolutely no health or nutritional benefit to artificial food dyes, they’re hardly necessary. Even if there’s only a moderate number of studies that show how something may negatively impact you and your family, why risk it?
A healthier way
While artificial dyes are particularly prevalent in sugary foods, you’d be surprised at how many are widely used in foods marketed as “healthy.” Reading labels and avoiding artificial food dyes will help take the confusion out of shopping and avoid choices that aren’t good for you anyways. Sound like a win-win? It sure does to us!
Rather than driving yourself bonkers, create balance.
We did some research and found food dyes on the market with color naturally derived from fruit and veggie extracts (such as beta carotene and beet extract), but they all seemed to share a similar problem… cost. At upwards of $20 a pack and eight to ten times more expensive, natural food coloring may not always be feasible.
When you’re looking for a pop of color, find ways to get creative. If you’re making a birthday cake for your kids, top it with bright-colored fruit like blueberries and strawberries. Want to celebrate Saint Patty’s in style? Add a pop of color to your deviled eggs by whipping them up with mashed avocado, rather than mayo, or adding a little pesto.
While we occasionally eat food made with artificial dye at parties, picnics and other events, we do the best we can to avoid them at home. Our recommendations? Rather than driving yourself bonkers and trying to COMPLETELY eliminate them from you and your family’s diet, a better approach may be to eliminate them from your home and be aware, but not obsess about, the foods outside of your house.
Vote with your money.
Because food companies depend on their consumers’ dollars, the best way for us to initiate change is to vote with our wallet by no longer buying foods with artificial ingredients. Just like in the U.K. and other countries abroad, the FDA and food companies will wake up to the fact that change is necessary.
Let's initiate change and eliminate artificial food dyes — together!
P.S. Have you found artificial dyes in surprising places or experienced an unfavorable side effect because of them? Share below!
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