Why Bright Colors in Your Food May Mean Really Bad Things for Your Health

A new report from Center for Science in the Public Interest says that synthetic food dyes pose risks of cancer, hyperactivity in children and allergies.

Did you know that food manufacturers use about 15 million pounds of eight synthetic dyes into our food every year? In fact, per capita consumption of food dyes has increased fivefold since 1955, thanks mostly to fun colors in breakfast cereals, fruit drinks and candies.

Breakfast cereals... yum. But put down that spoon because you know where this is headed: A new report from Center for Science in the Public Interestsays that synthetic food dyes pose risks of cancer, hyperactivity in children and allergies. Here's a rundown of the top offenders:

  • Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, which are all contaminated with known carcinogens, says CSPI.
  • Our old friend Red 3, which the FDA has banned for use in drugs and cosmetics, but remains in the food supply to the tune of 200,000 pounds per year in goods like Betty Crocker Fruit Roll-Ups and ConAgra Kid Cuisine frozen meals. (No, I can't explain the logic of that one either.)
  • Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which can cause rare but serious allergic reactions in some people.

Says CSPI executive director MIchael F. Jacobson:

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. The Food and Drug Administration should ban dyes, which would force industry to color foods with real food ingredients, not toxic petrochemicals.

Sounds simple enough, and FDA regulations around food dyes are actually stricter than a lot of their rules about food additives, saying that there must be “convincing evidence that establishes with reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the intended use of the color additive.” Which means someone has been asleep at the wheel — possibly in a packaged food industry-induced sugar coma?

More stringent regulations overseas means a British McDonald's Strawberry Sundae is pink thanks to real strawberries; while the Yankee version gets its rosy hue from Red 40 and British Fanta is orange thanks to carrot and pumpkin extract, not the Red 40/Yellow 6 cocktail that you're swilling. And starting next week, the European Union will require food manufacturers to put a warning notice (“may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”) on most dyed foods. FDA, we're looking at you to do the same.

Do food dyes (or other ingredients) affect your child's behavior? If so, go here to report it to CSPI. If you're not sure, or want to know more about the dyes you're eating, check out the Brain Food Selector database at Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which lets you search by product type, brand, or food dye to find out just what kind of rainbow you might be tasting.

Virginia Sole-Smith is a freelance writer who has held staff positions at Seventeen and Organic Style.
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