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They’re bright, they’re pretty, and they're found in everything from breakfast cereals to baked goods–but artificial colors can also be hazardous to your health, according to a consumer watchdog group that wants chemical food dyes banned. A new report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says synthetic dyes used in food pose major health risks, such as cancer, allergic reactions and hyperactivity in children.
The CSPI report claims that none of the food dyes approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been proven safe, and that the three most widely used colorings--Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6--are contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. According to the group, the FDA allows food manufacturers to use another dye, Red 3, even though the acting FDA commissioner in 1985 said it had “clearly been shown to induce cancer.”
“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,” CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said in a statement.
A spokesman for the FDA said the agency had not seen the report yet on Wednesday, but added: “We take our commitment to protecting children seriously." On its website, the FDA says that permitted colors are "subject to rigorous safety standards prior to approval" and that foods containing approved color additives are "safe to eat."
But other health experts have also expressed concerns. " It’s disappointing that the FDA has not addressed the toxic threat posed by food dyes," said James Huff, the associate director for chemical carcinogenesis at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ National Toxicology Program. “Their continued use presents unnecessary risks to humans, especially young children."
Indeed, despite the concerns raised by health and consumer groups, our consumption of chemical food dyes has increased five-fold since 1955. When we think of artificially colored foods, we may conjure up images of Technicolor candies and foods, like lollipops that turn our tongue red or neon orange cheese puffs. But if you were to go to your cupboard and pull out any packaged food, from cereal to fruit drinks to salad dressing, you’d likely to find at least one artificial food dye. As you might expect, foods marketed to kids tend to contain the largest amount.
Several independent studies have already linked food additives to increased hyperactivity in children. Research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents of kids with ADHD might want to put their kids on a preservative- and food-coloring-free diet known as the Feingold Diet.
Because of the association between behavioral problems in kids and food colorings, starting July 20, the European Union will require a warning label on products made with artificial food dyes. Last year, England asked food manufacturers to stop using them altogether. Instead, products in Great Britain are made with natural food colorings, such as beet juice, beta-carotene and carrot juice. The CSPI hopes the warning labels that will soon be rquird through the European Union will signal the end of artificial food dye use there too.
Then it hopes we can do the same thing on this side of the Atlantic. Health risks or not, I wouldn’t mind seeing color additives replaced with all-natural alternatives. Anything we can do to back away from chemical-laden snacks sounds like a solid idea to me.
Even if the FDA does sound the death knell on food dyes, though, maybe we ought to take a step back and take a big-picture look at why we’re eating processed foods (and giving them to our kids) to begin with. As former FDA insider Marion Nestle, MPH, New York University professor of food, nutrition and public health, and author of What to Eat says, “color additives go into processed foods to cover up flaws and make them look attractive. Kids don't need to be eating highly processed foods.” In other words: food dyes are often used in foods that don't have a lot of nutritional benefits anyway. Think of processed food as a big warning label. Feed yourself and your family real food instead --like fresh produce, meats, nuts and dried fruit--and you won't have to worry about potentially dangerous dyes or nutritional deficiencies.
How concerned are you about the potential health hazards of food dyes? Chime in below.