Artificial dyes aren’t just making your Yoplait Light Red Raspberry yogurt blush and your Kraft Macaroni and Cheese glow in the dark. They are causing behavioral problems and disrupting children’s attention, according to a growing number of scientific studies. On Wednesday, following the lead of European regulators, a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee will begin a review of research on the behavioral effects of artificial dyes. In a significant turn from the agency’s previous denials that dyes have any influence on children’s behavior, an FDA staff report released last week concluded that synthetic food colorings do affect some children.
The agency should take action. Allowing the use of artificial dyes violates the FDA’s mandate to protect consumers from unsafe products. It also runs afoul of the agency’s mandate to crack down on food that has been made “to appear better or of greater value than it is.”
Concern about food dye is long-standing. In the 1800s, American food manufacturers began doctoring their wares with toxic pigments made from lead and copper. In the second half of that century, a revolution in organic chemistry brought artificial dyes made from coal tar — a relative advance over lead.
At the turn of the 20th century, margarine producers were making the most of the technology: They added new yellow dyes to their colorless product to better compete with butter. But the dairy industry lobbied for bans and taxes on colored margarine, and state legislatures and Congress obliged. Consumers who wanted their margarine yellow could open a separate packet of dye and mix it in themselves.
In 1906, Congress took up the question of whether artificial dyes were bad for consumers, with the first of several major acts. The most recent and stringent of them, passed in 1960, banned color additives that caused cancer in humans or animals. But the fate of one such additive, Red 3, illustrates how even strong legislation can be thwarted. Lab rats that were fed large amounts of the dye developed thyroid cancer, so in 1984 the acting FDA commissioner recommended banning it. However, fruit-cocktail producers, who relied on the dye to brighten maraschino cherries, pleaded with the Department of Agriculture to block the move. As a result, the FDA banned Red 3 only in cosmetics and topical drugs.
In the early 1990s, FDA and Canadian scientists found that Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, the three most widely used dyes, were contaminated with likely human carcinogens. And while many foods, such as M&M’s and Kellogg’s Hot Fudge Sundae Pop Tarts, include as many as five different dyes, even today the carcinogenic potential of such combinations has not been tested.