Politics and Science
First of all, there is no black and white answer to this question. Yet. When it comes to food science and politics, we live in a very grey world. You’ve probably heard conflicting information on food dyes and safety – so if you’re confused, you’re not alone. There has been a debate over the link between food dyes and hyperactivity in children since the 1970s. The Feingold Association of the US, inspired by Dr. Ben F. Feingold, encourages a diet free of the common chemical additives found in food, including food dyes. There have been a few studies testing the Feingold Hypothesis, which have shown mixed results. Often, the study size and methods have been criticized. Although food dyes are present in many popular food items, the dyes are only present in small amounts (parts per billion/trillion). To be fair, it is difficult to test the health effects of exposure to low-dose chemicals. Scientists would need a large amount of test subjects to study over a matter of decades. In addition, the companies who use food dyes are reluctant to give them up and may use political influence to keep this controversy at bay.
The Southampton Study
A 2007 British study, known as the Southampton study, has been a focus in the current debate. For this study, 3- and 8-year-olds were given two kinds of drinks that contained a mix of dyes. Behavior reported by parents showed a notable increase in hyperactivity, but reports from teachers and other observers did not. The study was criticized for using a mixture of dyes with a preservative. Critics claimed that it was hard to tell which substance was causing the problem. On the other hand, the study’s designers argued that a child very rarely ingests just one artificial color or just a preservative. In fact, the food items that contain artificial dyes often contain several colors and at least one preservative.
Despite its criticisms, the findings were significant enough in the eyes of the British government to spark legal action. The European Union now requires that most foods with artificial food dyes come with a warning label. The label reads: “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Several US corporations have redeveloped their products for the UK market, including Kraft and Coca-Cola.
Meanwhile, in the US…
The Southampton study did bring some pressure onto the FDA to follow suit with the UK’s effort. In 2011, the FDA concluded that there is not enough evidence to prove whether food dyes cause hyperactivity. One of the strongest advocates for a food dye ban has been the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The CSPI has been pushing the FDA to ban eight artificial food dyes. There has been special attention placed on Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6, as these make up 90 percent of the food dyes on the US market. The CSPI released a document titled “Rainbow of Risks”, claiming food dyes might have links to health issues beyond hyperactivity, including cancer.
You may feel like this article gave you more questions than answers. I feel similar. I do find it interesting that the burden of proof does not rest upon food companies to show that dyes are safe. Rather, it is up to food safety advocates to prove that they are unsafe. I find it unsettling that there have been a large number of color additives once regarded as safe, that are no longer authorized for use. Let’s not forget that smoking was once believed to be safe as well. Perhaps time is the real teacher.
In the end, let’s recall that food dyes are only really used to sell junky, processed, and unhealthy foods. These are foods that we should limit anyway, both for our kids and ourselves. As far as we know, food dyes have no health benefits. Therefore, avoiding them will not cause harm to your kids. There are several natural options for food coloring including beets, carrots, spinach, pumpkin, berries, red cabbage, turmeric, saffron, and paprika. Food with fake dyes may not come with a package warning in the US, but they are listed with the ingredients. So if food dye safety concerns you, your best defense is reading the label.