Are Food Dyes Safe?

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

In the past few weeks, there's been a lot of talk in the media about the safety of consuming food dyes. The main issue is in regards to the impact on children. Some parents report that their kids have increased hyperactive behavior after consuming food dyes, and notice a significant behavioral improvement after eliminating these additives. Studies have explored this question and yielded mixed results, but none has eliminated food colorings as a possible cause of hyperactive behavior.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that focuses on food policy, released a petition in 2008 calling for the FDA to ban the use of eight food dyes. The CSPI argued that since these food dyes are not proven entirely safe for children, and since they serve no purpose other than marketing mostly unhealthy foods, their elimination from our diet is logical. Much of the CSPI's case comes from a 2007 study published in the Lancet, that found significant adverse behavioral effects in both three and eight-to-nine-year-olds after consuming a juice drink with food coloring.

The eight food colorings in question are present in dozens of foodstuffs, ranging from popsicles to cereal to baked goods. Some are even used in drugs and cosmetics. Even those with healthy diets could consume surprisingly large amounts of these dyes, and children are especially susceptible given their higher consumption of snack and processed foods.

But of course, not everyone agrees with the CSPI.

Snack food producers are a strong lobbying voice against the CSPI's anti-food coloring efforts. Recently, the New York Times ran a story about "colorless food"—that is, foods prepared with no food dyes. Our ability to perceive flavors in food is greatly affected by the food's color. A pale Cheeto is simply not as cheesy as a bright orange Cheeto, even though their recipe is identical apart from the addition of orange food coloring. It seems that food producers could make a pretty strong economic argument for clinging to food dyes, if color-free foods don't please customers.

Food manufacturers are already required to reveal whether their foods contain artificial colorings. This weakens the case for closer regulation because consumers can avoid colorings if they choose to do so, just by looking at the ingredients label. But the CSPI argues that many parents are uninformed about the risk of dyes, and would therefore not even consider eliminating them from their child's diet. They say that the best action in the consumer interest is to eliminate these dyes altogether, or at the very least to require warning labels on products containing dyes.

The FDA answered the CSPI's call for a committee review of food colorings, and found that a warning was not needed on foods containing artificial dyes. They claimed the science was not strong enough to hold food dyes solely responsible for the behavioral changes noted in the relevant studies. Unsurprisingly, many food producers praised this decision.

The issue of whether food colorings are safe has been an issue in food policy for nearly 30 years. Food dyes are among many other chemical additives (in addition to artificial sweeteners, flavor enhancers, even caffeine) whose safety has been questioned by scientists and consumers alike. Do you think there's a case for the danger of food dyes? What measures should the FDA take?

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

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