Blue yogurt. Fruit snacks with multi-colored tongue tattoos. Even salmon farmers use a “SalmoFan” color chart, a tool that looks like a paint sampler from a hardware store, to choose what color they’d like their fish to be.
Consumers “buy with their eyes” (a market research finding that seems oddly obvious) and the color of food even dictates how we believe it tastes. According to Nicki Engeseth, food scientist at the University of Illinois, “If you put yellow food coloring in vanilla pudding, before [people] even taste it, they will think it will be lemon or banana. They will tell you it is lemon or banana even after tasting it because they are so strongly perceiving it as lemon or banana.”
Clearly, color is important. But are these hues healthy?
More than 90% of food colorings now in use are synthetic. According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), nine synthetic food dyes, mostly petroleum-derived, are U.S.-approved for use in foods under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938 (FD&C;). (Down from roughly 80 at the turn of the 20th century.) Pigments from natural sources are exempt from FDA certification.
The IATP Guide says: “Over the last three decades, repeated studies have concluded that modest doses of synthetic colors added to foods can provoke hyperactivity and other disturbed behavior in children. The effect – contrary to popular conception – is not allergic; it does not appear more commonly in allergy-prone or ‘atopic’ children.’”
But, natural dyes aren’t free and clear either. As Daniel Engber writes in Slate Magazine,
“natural dyes can cause reactions, too, and their origins may be as much of a gross-out: sausages, ice cream, and Campari, for example, are routinely colored with an allergenic scarlet made from the crushed bodies of the cochineal insect.”
Engber takes the issue even further by arguing that even our concept of the “natural” colors associated with whole foods is a sham.
“For instance, the fruits we call ‘oranges’ are often green when they’re fully ripe. (They turn orange on the tree only when they’re exposed to cold weather or bathed in ethylene gas.) The oranges you buy at the supermarket may look natural, but there’s a good chance they’ve been coated with Citrus Red No. 2. Likewise, we’re all familiar with the faint, yellowish color of pure butter. (Margarine manufacturers were once penalized for conniving to make their pale-white substitute look more like the real thing.) But thanks to a loophole in the FDA’s labeling rules, that wholesome shade is often the result of added dyes. (Click here for more on the “natural” color of butter.)”
Consumers should also consider the variety of sources of these dyes. They’re not just in food – they’re in personal care products, vitamins, medications, and cleaners, too. We know nothing about the cumulative impacts of these exposures, especially in regards to our children’s health and development. While consuming dyed food or absorbing dyes dermally (via colored lotions or soaps, for instance) may not cause problems for everyone, the body of evidence for potential risks associated with artificial colors is growing.
Artificial food colors have been linked to allergies, asthma, hyperactivity and even cancer. U.K. officials recently proposed a voluntary ban on them (and now Kraft Lunchables in the UK are naturally colored, but the product sold in the US is still artificially colored). In light of increasing evidence of risk and the success of the ban in the UK, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has petitioned the FDA to ban the use of existing artificial food dyes in the U.S., and to require for the first time that new food additives be tested for their toxicity to the brain and behavior before going on the market.
Here’s what the CSPI writes about existing artificial dyes:
Caution: BLUE 1 (found in beverages, candy and baked goods)
One (unpublished) animal test suggested a small cancer risk, and a test-tube study indicated the dye might affect neurons. Blue 1 might be safe, but it should be better tested.
Avoid: BLUE 2 (found in pet food, beverages and candy)
Animal studies found some – but not conclusive – evidence that Blue 2 causes brain cancer in male rats, but the Food and Drug Administration concluded that there is “reasonable certainty of no harm.”
Caution: CITRUS RED 2 (found in the skin of some Florida oranges only)
The amounts of this rarely used dye that one might consume, even from eating marmalade, are so small that the risk is not worth worrying about.
Avoid: GREEN 3 (found in candy and beverages)
A 1981 industry-sponsored study gave hints of bladder and testes tumors in male rats, but FDA re-analyzed the data using other statistical tests and concluded that the dye was safe. Fortunately, this possibly carcinogenic dye is not widely used.
Avoid: ORANGE B (found in sausage)
Approved for use only in sausage casings, high doses of this dye are harmful to the liver and bile duct. However, that is not worrisome because Orange B has not been used for many years.
Avoid: RED 3 (found in candy and baked goods)
The evidence that this dye caused thyroid tumors in rats is “convincing,” according to a 1983 review committee report requested by the FDA. The FDA’s recommendation that the dye be banned was overruled by pressure from elsewhere in the Reagan Administration. Red 3 used to color maraschino cherries, but it has been replaced there by the less controversial Red 40 dye. It is still used in a smattering of foods ranging from cake icing to fruit roll-ups to chewing gum.
Caution: RED 40 (found in soda pop, candy, gelatin desserts, pastries, pet food and sausage)
The most widely used food dye. While this is one of the most-tested food dyes, the key mouse tests were flawed and inconclusive. An FDA review committee acknowledged problems, but said evidence of harm was not “consistent” or “substantial.” Red 40 can cause allergy-like reactions. Like oth
er dyes, Red 40 is used mainly in junk foods.
Avoid: YELLOW 5 (found in gelatin dessert, candy, pet food and baked goods)
The second-most-widely used coloring causes allergy – like hypersensitivity reactions, primarily in aspirin-sensitive persons and triggers hyperactivity in some children. It may be contaminated with such cancer-causing substances as benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl (or chemicals that the body converts to those substances).
Avoid: YELLOW 6 (found in beverages, candy and baked goods)
Industry-sponsored animal tests indicated that this dye, the third most widely used, causes tumors of the adrenal gland and kidney. In addition, small amounts of several carcinogens, such as 4-aminobiphenyl and benzidine (or chemicals that the body converts to those substances), contaminate Yellow 6. However, the FDA reviewed those data and found reasons to conclude that Yellow 6 does not pose a significant cancer risk to humans. Yellow 6 may cause occasional but sometimes-severe hypersensitivity reactions.
What you can do
- Read labels. Read the ingredients list of the products you buy and avoid the artificial colors mentioned above. Use IATP’s Brain Food Selector to find out information about the dyes in your child’s favorite foods. See their Smart Guide to Food Dyes for more information on health concerns for children from synthetic food dyes.
- Find alternatives. Looking for safer options for coloring frosting and play dough? Health food stores sell colors made from food – turmeric, blueberry, beets, etc. You can also try making your own. (You may need to experiment when using these in foods as some of their natural flavor may be detectable.)
- Research a safer Rx. If you need medication and are not sure if it contains colors, you can check online at www.rxlist.com. If your medication is made with colors, contact a compounding pharmacy to see if they can do it without all the colors. A list of compounding pharmacies can be found at www.iacprx.org.