In Europe, Dyed Foods Get Warning Label

Products with Yellow 5, Red 40, Other Dyes “May Have an Adverse Effect on Activity and Attention in Children”


WASHINGTON—Starting today in the European Union, most foods that contain artificial food dyes must bear warning labels stating that the food “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” As a practical matter, it’s unclear exactly how many foods will have to use that language on labels, since dyes were never as widely used in Europe as in the United States. Also, the British government asked companies to remove most dyes by last December 31st. The Center for Science in the Public Interest says it hopes the European labeling rule gets the attention of officials at the Food and Drug Administration, which to date has not shown interest in protecting American consumers from the controversial dyes, as well as American companies—including those that are not using dyes in Europe.

Companies should replace Red 40, Yellow 5 and other synthetic dyes with natural colorings like these. British consumers enjoy food products free of most food dyes, but the same can't be said for Americans.

Photo Credit: Michael Jacobson

Synthetic food dyes have been suspected of triggering behavior problems in children 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 proved that some children’s behavior is worsened by artificial dyes. A 2004 meta-analysis concluded that artificial dyes affect children’s behavior, and two recent studies funded by the British government found that mixtures of dyes (as well as the preservative sodium benzoate) adversely affect kids’ behavior.

In 2008, CSPI filed a regulatory petition that called on the FDA to ban dyes because of the problems documented in children.

“At this point, American food manufacturers and regulators alike should be embarrassed that we’re feeding kids foods with chemicals that have such a powerfully disruptive impact on children’s behavior,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “European officials are taking the issue much more seriously, and are moving toward a safer food supply as a result.”

Because the FDA hasn’t encouraged food manufacturers to switch to safer natural colorings, many American food companies use the chemicals in the United States products but not in the U.K. equivalents. For example, the topping for a McDonald’s Strawberry Sundae sold in the United States contains Red 40.

In the U.K., the topping’s color comes from strawberries. Representative Louise Slaughter, Chairman of the House Rules Committee and the only microbiologist serving in Congress, has written the FDA twice expressing concern about the widespread use of artificial dyes in food.

“This is a sensible policy and a smart move to help protect the health and well being of children in Europe,” Slaughter said. “For too long, studies have raised questions about the impact food dyes are having on the development of children and the possible link between dyes and behavior. I have been troubled by the lack of solid data on this issue for more than a decade. It’s my hope that the Food and Drug Administration reviews the abundance of science on this issue and considers implementing a similar restriction or outright ban.”

Besides being linked to behavior problems in children, food dyes are also inadequately tested and may pose cancer risks as well, according to a CSPI report—Food Dyes: Rainbow of Risks—published last month. 

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