Dyes Called "Secret Shame" of Food Industry and Regulators
Yellow 5, Red 40, and six other widely used artificial colorings are linked to hyperactivity and behavior problems in children and should be prohibited from use in foods, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group today formally petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban the dyes, several of which are already being phased out in the United Kingdom. The other six dyes are Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, and Yellow 6.
Synthetic food dyes have been suspected of disrupting children's behavior since the 1970s, when Dr. Ben Feingold, a San Francisco allergist, reported that his patients improved when their diets were changed. Numerous controlled studies conducted over the next three decades in the United States, Europe, and Australia proved that some children’s behavior is worsened by artificial dyes, but the government did nothing to discourage their use and food manufacturers greatly increased their reliance on them.
A comprehensive 2004 meta-analysis of the medical literature concluded that artificial dyes affect children's behavior, and two recent studies funded by the British government found that dyes (as well as the preservative sodium benzoate) adversely affect kids' behavior. Unlike most previous studies, those British studies tested children in the general population, not children whose parents suspected they were sensitive to dyes. As a result, the British government is successfully pressuring food manufacturers to switch to safer colorings.
"We spent years trying to figure out the cause of our son's behavioral problems," said Judy Mann, of Silver Spring, Md. "For a long time, we thought the culprit was sugar. But when we started carefully monitoring everything he ate we were able to see that artificial dyes and preservatives were the problem. Since eliminating them the change has been positively stunning."
"The continued use of these unnecessary artificial dyes is the secret shame of the food industry and the regulators who watch over it," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "The purpose of these chemicals is often to mask the absence of real food, to increase the appeal of a low-nutrition product to children, or both. Who can tell the parents of kids with behavioral problems that this is truly worth the risk?"
Americans' exposure to artificial food dyes has risen sharply. According to the FDA, the amount of food dye certified for use was 12 milligrams per capita per day in 1955. In 2007, 59 mg per capita per day, or nearly five times as much, was certified for use. Dyes are used in countless foods and are sometimes used to simulate the color of fruits or vegetables.Kraft's Guacamole Dip gets its greenish color not from avocados (there are almost none) but from Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Blue 1. The blue bits in Aunt Jemima Blueberry Waffles are blue thanks to Red 40 and Blue 2, not real blueberries.
Artificial dyes are particularly prevalent in the sugary cereals, candies, sodas, and snack foods pitched to kids. For instance, General Mills' Fruit Roll-ups and Fruit-by-the-Foot flavored snacks get their fruity colors from Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, and Blue 1. General Mills' Fruity Cheerios, Lucky Charms, and Trix also contain several of the problematic dyes, as do Kellogg's Froot Loops and Apple Jacks and Post's Fruity Pebbles.
More than a dozen American varieties of Kraft's Oscar Meyer Lunchables kids' meals contain artificial food dyes, but not so the British versions. Starburst Chews, Skittles, and M&M candies—all Mars products—contain the full spectrum of artificial colors in the U.S., but not in the U.K., where the company uses natural colorings. Even foods that aren't particularly brightly colored can contain dyes, including several varieties of macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. Betty Crocker's Au Gratin "100% Real" Potatoes are partly not real, colored as they are with Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, both derived from coal tar. Remarkably, in Britain, the color in McDonald's strawberry sauce for sundaes actually comes from strawberries; in the U.S. it comes from Red 40.
"The science shows that kids' behavior improves when these artificial colorings are removed from their diets and worsens when they’re added to the their diets," said Dr. David Schab, a psychiatrist at Columbia University Medical Center, who conducted the 2004 meta-analysis with his colleague Dr. Nhi-Ha T. Trinh. "While not all children seem to be sensitive to these chemicals, it's hard to justify their continued use in foods—especially those foods heavily marketed to young children."
Americans need not travel to Britain to find kid-friendly food without artificial food dyes, though. Everything with a Trader Joe's label sold at the supermarket and all products at Whole Foods are free of the controversial chemicals.
"I can't imagine why the Food and Drug Administration still allows these artificial colors in food, knowing what we know," said Beth Tribble, a Fairfax County, VA parent of two boys, whose youngest is sensitive to food dyes. "It's almost impossible for parents to eliminate these chemicals from their kids' diets on their own. The FDA could make life a lot easier for parents and children by just getting rid of them."
"Banning these synthetic chemicals is certainly a far less drastic step than putting so many children on Ritalin or other potentially dangerous and sometimes-abused prescription stimulants," said Jacobson. "The food industry has known about this problem for 30 years, yet few companies have switched to safer colorings. We hope today is the beginning of the end for Yellow 5, Red 40, and these other dubious dyes."
CSPI's petition asks the FDA to require a warning label on foods with artificial dyes while it mulls CSPI's request to ban the dyes outright. CSPI also wants the FDA to correct the information it presents to parents on its web site about the impact of artificial food dyes on behavior. Joining CSPI's call are 19 prominent psychiatrists, toxicologists, and pediatricians who today co-signed letter urging members of Congress to hold hearings on artificial food dyes and behavior, and to fund an Institute of Medicine research project on the issue. Those doctors include L. Eugene Arnold, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Ohio State University; Bernard Weiss, professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry; and Stanley Greenspan, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School.