If you guessed that they can cause or exacerbate neurobehavioral issues in some children, you’re right.
All these products contain synthetic food dyes that can cause neurobehavioral problems—like hyperactivity, inattention, sleeplessness, and aggression—in some children.
If any of that surprises you, you’re not alone (and the Center for Science in the Public Interest is trying to fix that). According to a 2021 survey of over one thousand Californian adults commissioned by CSPI, most people are not aware that dyes can cause hyperactivity and inattention—a fact confirmed by California’s Environmental Protection Agency.
While almost every survey respondent knew that M&M’s contain dyes—after all, they are vibrantly colorful—few could tell that Mt. Olive baby kosher dill pickles, Jet Puffed marshmallows, and Arby’s chocolate shake contain dyes as well – this after more than a third of survey respondents reported believing they could identify dyed foods by color alone.
How do I identify foods with synthetic dyes?
The only way to reliably identify—and fully avoid—dyed foods is by reading the ingredient label on every food every time you grocery shop and eat at restaurants, but that’s no easy feat.
Synthetic food dyes must appear on the ingredients list of packaged foods. That’s where you’ll find Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, or Yellow 6. But other color additives like titanium dioxide, suspected of damaging DNA, can just be called “artificial colors,” although they haven’t been implicated in behavioral problems.
In order to avoid dyed products, consumers—parents, guardians, and other caregivers—must review the ingredient list for every food purchased every time they shop or eat out. That is, unless they buy the same exact foods on every shopping trip and know for certain companies have not reformulated any of those foods recently.
That is a daunting task that requires a substantial and ongoing investment of time and effort. Those ingredient lists can be long and difficult to parse for those unfamiliar with chemical names.
And if you’re at a restaurant that doesn’t have ingredient information available, you’re simply out of luck.
Our survey showed that only 29 percent of respondents say they always read ingredient lists. Coupled with the fact that most people are not aware that food dyes cause neurobehavioral problems, this means that ingredient labeling alone is not sufficient to protect kids from dyes.
Californians want warning labels
Since 2010, foods containing certain synthetic dyes sold in the European Union have been required to have a warning stating, “may have an adverse effect on attention and activity in children.”
Warning labels like those required in Europe are a simple and easy way to both educate people about the impacts of dyes and empower shoppers to more easily identify dye-containing foods.
That’s why last December, CSPI and nine other organizations and scientists petitioned the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to require warning labels on synthetically dyed foods and supplements sold in the state. A warning would be required both on packaged foods and in restaurants.
This is something that Californians want. Over 70 percent of survey respondents were supportive of mandatory warning labels on dyed foods. That high degree of support was consistent across all sub-groups of people, including those with kids at home and those who politically identify as Democrats, Republicans, or Independents.
The level of support increased to 85 percent after survey participants were told more about California’s dyes report and the European warning label.
Last week, CSPI submitted a summary of our survey, alongside other important information refuting misleading statements made by industry at a hearing last month, as comments to CDPH.
A group of 35 organizations and distinguished individuals sent a letter in support of our petition to CDPH.
It is time for CDPH to act quickly and decisively, using its existing authority to require warning labels on synthetically dyed foods and supplements. California’s kids deserve nothing less.