Do Food Dyes Link to Health Problems?


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Colored Easter candy is flooding store shelves, ready to fill children’s baskets. Other colored foods are in most every aisle of the store – breakfast cereals with their rainbow of colored pops and grains, yogurts with their multicolor blends, even Fido the dog has colored treats available. And, are there really strawberries in strawberry milk, or is it Red 40 and Blue 1 food dye?

We are seeing an increase in the amount of artificial dyes in our foods. They are used mainly to trigger that part of our brain that says “this is good, buy me”.

Making food more appealing to the eye through dyes has been used by foodmakers since early times. Whether it was healthy, is very questionable. For example, pigments made from lead and copper were used on food in the early 1800’s. Then there were artificial dyes made from coal tar. The advent of margarine had consumers mixing in the supplied dye to give the yellow color of it’s pretender, butter.

The connection between artifical dyes and health problems has been controversial for many years. Now federal regulators from the Food and Drug Admninistration are meeting this week to discuss whether there is a link between synthetic color additives in food and adverse effects on behavior.

In the past, the FDA has been quite clear in stating that studies do not substantiate a link between the color additives that were tested and behavioral effects. Congress passed several major acts concerning artificial dyes and their relationship to the health of consumers. In early 1960, about 200 color additives were placed on a “provisional list” when Congress called for a ban on foods that cause cancer in laboratory animals.

In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration banned some uses of the color additive Red 3 saying studies have shown that in very high doses it causes cancer in laboratory animals. The use of this additive was not allowed in cosmetics such as lipsticks, shampoos, powders, skin care products, puddings, processed fruits and juices and some other products. It was still approved for candy, breakfast cereals, juices, meat products, chewing gum, maraschino cherries, icings, cakes and other products. Often pressure from industry groups and members of Congress causes the reluctance to impose a ban on various products.

Some studies have found that children given foods that were artificially dyed showed signs of hyperactivity. Studies found that even children with no known behavior problems became hyperactive and inattentive. Others have indicated it is very difficult to say with certainty that food color dyes change behavior.

Another big concern about the use of food coloring and dyes, in addition to the fear of being possibly toxic and detrimental for proper health and development, is the entire concept of how food is perceived. Will children be drawn to the brightly colored processed food instead of eating wholesome, more nutritious food?

Whole foods are brightly colored by nature and do not need any artificial coloring. Many of the dyed processed foods are high in calories and low in nutrition. This continues to add to the obesity problem in children and adults, with over 2/3 of our population overweight.

Some companies are starting to cut down on the use of artificial dyes, partly because of consumer demand. They are using other more natural products to help give color and flavor to the foods, such as different fruit juices and vegetables.

No matter what happens at the FDA meeting, consumers need to read labels and recognize the potential dangers in artificial food colors such as Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green, etc. Teach children to read labels and help them make good decisions about their health. Another suggestion is to stick with whole foods, which do not require any food coloring as they are beautifully colored by nature.

To you and your family’s health,

Lee Jackson, CFCS
Food Writer, Author

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