Today’s supermarket is a fun house of hues. Its aisles feature riotously colored processed foods perfectly engineered to appeal to the part of your brain that says “yum”: Technicolor Starburst candy. Polychromatic Froot Loops. A rainbow of flavored juices.
Those hyper-saturated colors have come to seem normal, even natural, like the come-ons of tropical fruits. But they are increasingly produced through the magic of artificial food dyes, applied not just to candies and snack foods but to such seemingly all-natural products as pickles, salad dressing and some oranges.
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.
Despite those concerns, parents continued to serve up meals and stuff their children’s lunchboxes with more and more processed foods colored with dyes, stoking a five-fold increase in the per-capita production of food dyes over the past 50 years.
Over the same period, psychiatrists and teachers were seeing more attention and behavioral problems, while allergists were raising concerns about Yellow 5. Physician Benjamin Feingold’s 1975 book, “Why Your Child Is Hyperactive,” along with the additive-free diet it promoted, spawned numerous studies on the effect of additives on attention-deficit disorders.
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.