FDA Reopens Food Dyes Debate

Don’t let this New York Times headline fool you: “Artificial Dye Safe to Eat, Panel Says.” The “expert panel” convened by the Food and Drug Administration was given the task to re-examine the link between hyperactivity in children and synthetic food colorings found in such products as Froot Loops cereal, Pop Tarts, Jell-O, and Minute Maid Lemonade. They were requested to vote last week on a possible revision of the FDA’s regulation regarding the synthetic additives, after the agency responded to a petition by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

For those of you in the health-conscious crowd whose hopes may have been kindled a couple of days ago by this other deadline, “F.D.A. Panel to Consider Warnings for Artificial Food Colorings,” bear in mind that:

  • the panel voted 8 to 6 against banning the dyes or recommending that more information about them be added to food labels. In other words, 43 percent of the medical and environmental “experts” have a dissenting opinion.
  • the decision is based on the alleged lack of iron-clad scientific evidence that food dyes systematically cause hyperactivity in children, and not on the evidence that no causal link exists whatsoever. In other words, the burden of proof is put on those who have the health of kids (and adults) at heart, not on the food industry that pumps its processed food for kids with petroleum-based dyes. Never mind that the same panelists acknowledged that the chemicals can worsen symptoms in children already prone to behavioral problems.

Unsurprisingly, “the Grocery Manufacturers Association [NOTE: the association that promotes and represents the world's food, beverage and consumer products companies] hailed the votes”, according to the New York Times.

The good news, brought to us by a somewhat better balanced article in the Los Angeles Times, is that the panel of medical and environmental experts agreed that enough uncertainty exists to justify more research. Just as importantly, the debate about synthetic food dyes has been brought back in the headlines.

Since Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a pediatric allergist from California, had success in the 1970s treating the symptoms of hyperactivity in some children by prescribing a diet that, among other things, eliminated artificial colorings, plenty of conclusive research has been published on the topic. Although behavioral pediatrician, author and talking head Lawrence Diller claims that evidence linking diet to childhood behavioral disorders belongs to “those urban legends that won’t die,” many experiments and studies attest to the contrary, including this one published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2007 as well as the famous Appleton Central High School case study.

The food industry uses synthetic dyes to hide the absence of real food in a product, to make children’s food products of low nutritional value more appealing, or to achieve a combination of the two, according to Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of CSPI. FDA data shows that the daily amount of food dyes allowed for consumption per day per capita in the US has increased five-fold between 1955 and 2007, up to 59 milligrams per day per capita.

In this context, it is worth noting that American children are more exposed to synthetic dyes than in any other country. According to the CSPI, many processed food products marketed to children in the U.S. contain artificial colorings while the same products sold on the British market, for instance, do not contain the artificial ingredients.

Fanta orange soda is dyed there with pumpkin and carrot extract while the U.S. version is dyed with Red 40 and Yellow 6; Kellogg Strawberry NutriGrain bars are colored with Red 40, Yellow 6 and Blue 1 in the U.S., but with beetroot, annatto and paprika extract in the U.K.; and McDonald’s Strawberry Sundaes are colored with strawberries in Britain but with Red dye 40 in America.

Let’s mention here for full disclosure that the British government requested that companies stop using most dyes by December 2009. Meanwhile, most dyed foods marketed throughout the European Union are required to bear a warning notice, effective since July 2010.

In this business-friendly land known as the United States of America, consumers are left with the fine option to educate themselves in order to make the right choices. A couple of suggestions come to mind: at home, preemptively check out this list to find out which of your favorite packaged foods contain artificial colorings; at the supermarket, carefully dissect food labels since the FDA requires that dyes be listed on all processed foods; or stay away from processed foods altogether, especially those that are marketed to children.

Needless to say, banning some old favorites may involve a struggle of sorts with children who are ceasessly bombarded by food ads designed just for them, and over 40 percent of which promote junk food (candy, snack, fast food), with at least one common denominator: synthetic food colorings.

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