In 2004, one of us co-authored an analysis of the best studies of food dyes’ effects on behavior. That analysis found striking evidence that hyperactive children who consumed dyes became significantly more hyperactive than children who got a placebo.
At the same time, the British government funded two studies, each involving almost 300 children. Their results were even more startling: Artificial food dyes (in combination with a common preservative) could make even children with no known behavioral problems hyperactive and inattentive.
Health officials in the United Kingdom urged manufacturers to stop using the six dyes — including Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 — involved in those studies. Next, the European Parliament required that foods containing those chemicals bear a label warning that the dyes “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” That is seen by some as the death knell for artificial dyes throughout Europe.
Beyond the behavioral problems and cancer risks, the greatest hazard that dyes pose for children may also be the most obvious: They draw kids away from nutritious foods and toward brightly colored processed products that are high in calories but low in nutrients, such as fruit-flavored drinks and snack foods. Those types of foods are a major force in America’s obesity epidemic, which, according to the Society of Actuaries, costs the nation $270 billion a year.
Artificial colorings are explicitly meant to manipulate consumers’ perceptions. Manufacturers tout research showing that redness enhances the impression of sweetness, and that in tests with beverages and sherbets, the color of the product did more to influence consumers’ perception of the flavor than the flavor itself. One dye marketer states that its colorings offer “a limitless palette, unmatched technology and the emotional connection between people and color.”
A world without harmful dyes does not mean a future of blandly beige snacks. A range of vivid natural colorings, made largely from plant extracts, is already in use in Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States. In Britain, for example, McDonald’s Strawberry Sundaes are made without artificial coloring; here, Red 40 adds to the strawberry color. Both the British and American formulations of Nutri-Grain Strawberry cereal bars contain strawberries, but in Britain plant-based colorings add extra color, while in the United States Red 40 does the job.
Fortunately, some U.S. companies are switching to colorings found in nature. The bountiful shelves of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are devoid of dyes, Necco has dropped artificial dyes from its iconic wafers, and Starbucks has banned dyes from its baked goods and drinks. Most companies will resist, because artificial dyes are brighter, cheaper and more stable than natural colorings. It’s also a nuisance for them to reformulate their dyed products — and the government has given them no incentive to change.
Today, Britons enjoy all the colorful foods they have come to expect without many of the health risks they learned to avoid. Here, we get the same foods — but until the FDA bans synthetic dyes, we get them with a side order of dangerous and unnecessary chemicals.
David W. Schab is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Michael F. Jacobson is the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
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