Food dyes: Making pretty edibles with a splash of petrochemicals

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By Brett Kessler
Green Right Now

Starting next week, the European Union will require all foods with artificial dyes to carry a label warning of the potential “adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Artificial food colorings – found in everything from cereal to ice cream – also have been found to have carcinogenic effects, to affect the reproductive system and cause allergies in laboratory studies.

Froot Loops, constructed of sugar, flour, preservatives and food dyes Red 40, Blue 1, Blue 2 and Yellow 6 (Photo: Zanastardust)

The EU’s decision was prompted, in part, by studies conducted last year by Britain’s Food Standards Agency. When children were given beverages colored with artificial dyes, the FSA found, they showed signs of hyperactivity and other behavioral disturbances. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration dismissed the findings – citing insufficient evidence to support a “link between color additives that were tested and behavioral effects” – the British government ordered companies to phase out almost all use of artificial dyes by the end of 2009.

As a result, food companies have had to change the way they color their products. A McDonald’s Strawberry Sundae, for example, contains strawberry extract in Britain but Red 40  in the U.S. British companies are now substituting natural colors – from beetroot, annatto, and other sources – for controversial synthetic dyes.

Europe turns down the hues but America sticks with synthetic dyes

With new regulations enacted across Europe, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington, hopes the U.S. will soon follow suit. On June 29 it published a report, entitled “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,” outlining what it believes to be the dangers associated with artificial dyes and the reasons they should be banned.

According to the CSPI report, the three most commonly used dyes – Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 – all contain known carcinogens and have been linked to hyperactivity in kids. Fifteen million pounds of these and other artificial dyes are added to American foods every year.

“These synthetic chemicals do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, but trigger behavior problems in children and, possibly, cancer in anybody,” said CSPI executive director Dr. Michael F. Jacobson, announcing a new push to reconsider the use of dyes. “The Food and Drug Administration should ban dyes, which would force industry to color foods with real food ingredients, not toxic petrochemicals.”

Congress also could regulate the use of dyes, Jacobson said. Even though lawmakers might be reluctant to pass an outright ban, they could begin with regulating dyes in foods used in school cafeterias and vending machines, he said.

The CSPI  report cites studies in which laboratory animals grew tumors as a result of exposure to artificial dyes, including results from FDA investigations conducted over two decades ago. Red 3, the report notes, was identified by the FDA as a thyroid carcinogen, yet is still approved for use in drugs and foods. About 200,000 pounds of the dye are used every year.

Scientists have not yet widely-researched the cancer-causing effects of all the dyes available on the market. And while much is left to be desired in the way of hard evidence, experts like Dr. David Wallinga, director of the Food and Health program at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), argue that consumers should be wary.

“I wouldn’t be surprised [if some dyes were found to be carcinogenic] because most of these are synthesized from petrochemicals, and if you look generally at cancer-causing products in our environment a lot of them come from petrochemicals,” said Dr. Wallinga.

Colorful foods — aimed at the most vulnerable

Jacobson and Wallinga both warn that children may be especially at risk.

“Kids are exposed to food dyes much more than adults are, and kids are probably much more sensitive to carcinogens,” Jacobson said. “Also, the amount of dye used in foods has increased considerably in the last few years.”

Using dyes to enhance the color of food dates back many centuries. Ancient Romans used pomegranates, carrots, and spices such as saffron to add a splash of color to their meals. In Medieval times, colored food was a symbol of wealth and class. Food of bright, rich hues was considered healthier and more nutritious.

Unfortunately, as dyes became more readily available, merchants began to use them to conceal the quality of their products. Some added color to used tea leaves, making them look new. Others used chemicals (including mercury, copper, and other toxics) to add bursts of color to children’s candies. Poisonous dyes could be found in everything from bread to mustard to pickles.

Food dyes, as we know them today, were first developed by chemist William Henry Perkin in 1856. He found a way to derive a purple color from aniline, an organic compound that comes from petroleum or coal. Most of the synthetic dyes on the market today are also “coal-tar colors.” (For more on the history of food dyes, check out this 2006 report by Harvard Law School graduate Adam Burrows.)

Today, artificial dyes can be found virtually everywhere. Some uses are obvious – in Kellogg’s Froot Loops, Mars’ M&Ms, and other brightly-colored treats – while others are more subtle. For example, dyes are sometimes used to color wine and salmon.

The use of food dyes has increased five-fold per capita since the 1950s, said Jacobson. But the increased used has not been as pronounced in Europe.

“They’ve always been more skeptical of synthetic chemicals and processed foods than Americans.  And so it’s easier for companies (even American multinationals) in Europe to get rid of dyes because they never used them as widely as companies do in America,” Jacobson said.

Wallinga believes Americans have become complacent about artificial dyes because such a vast array of processed products are marketed with color.

“We’re conditioned to buy eye candy rather than good food,” he said.


To find foods that are naturally dyed, look for label notations about fruits used for coloring, and food-derived products such as annato, beta-carotene and other fruit and vegetable extracts.

To check to see which foods contain food dyes, use the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), database.

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

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