Update April 1: FDA panel split 8-6 against the idea of putting warning labels on processed foods with synthetic color additives, with the majority arguing that there was insufficient scientific justification for new regulation.
The Food and Drug Administration is meeting this week to discuss the latest science on artificial food dyes. Could they be causing harm, particularly increased attention deficit problems in children? Should foods carry warning labels? Should some synthetic dyes be removed from foods completely? These are some of the questions on the agenda.
For context, we look to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that has been vocally arguing for stricter regulations of artificial food additives for years. It was the center's petition that prompted this FDA review. There is little chance that the government will adopt the group's recommendation, namely that "food dyesused in everything from M&Ms to Manischewitz Matzo Balls to Kraft salad dressingspose risks of cancer, hyperactivity in children, and allergies, and should be banned." The food and chemical industries, of course, stand behind the safety of their products, and point out that American consumers like brightly colored foods that appear either more fun or more healthy and fresh than their un-colored counterparts.
Still, the high-profile review by the FDA is focusing attention on the issue. So let's look at the Center for Science in the Public Interest's main arguments, set out in a 2010 report, Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks:
Cancer: Citrus Red 2, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2 and Green 3, which include some of the most commonly used synthetic food dyes have been identified as being, or being contaminated with, potential cancer-causing chemicals. The potential carcinogenity is largely based on small-scale animal testing in laboratories.
Allergies: Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are known to trigger reactions in those with allergies.
Hyperactivity: In 2009, Britain asked food companies to phase out the use of most food dyes in children's food over concerns some studies had raised about their link to hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder and related health issues. (Other experts in the field have questioned the results of those studies.)
Children: Overall, 15 million pounds of synthetic food dyes are added to foods annually. The per-capita consumption of dyes has increased five-fold since 1955, and part of the reason is that the food industry markets brightly colored candies, beverages and cereals to children. As with most chemical exposures, the risk to children is greater than the risk to adults, because their organs and body systems are still rapidly developing, and their smaller size means smaller exposures can have an outsized effect.
Nutrition: Food dyes add no nutritional value; their value is purely aesthetic. Should the FDA be so permissive with chemicals in food, suspect or not, that amount to little more than marketing? The Center for Science in the Public Interest doesn't think so.
Substitutes: When Britain told food makers to stop using many food dyes, the same variety of foods, in many of the same colors, stayed on the shelves at the same prices. Natural dyes were substituted. For instance, McDonald's strawberry sundae is colored with strawberries, not red 40 as it is in the U.S., and Fanta orange soda gets its color overseas from pumpkin and carrot extracts, rather than Red 40 and Yellow 6, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Besides healthy, whole foods, there are other naturally-dyed alternatives to some of the junk foods we've become accustomed to. Expect to hear more about Surf Sweets, for instance, an organic candy company which is broadcasting the message that it does not use artificial dyes, and never has.
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