There’s a menace hiding in plain sight, residing in everything from breakfast cereals and blueberry muffins to pickle jars and juice boxes. It’s not trans fat or high-fructose corn syrup – though these are certainly prevalent and pose their own risks – it’s artificial food dye, and it could be wrecking your child’s health.
“I get really fired up about food dyes,” says Lisa Lefferts, senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington, D.C. “Dyes don’t have any higher purpose. They don’t have any health or nutritional benefits. They’re used for cosmetic purposes, to fool people into thinking there’s something more appealing about the food than there really is.”
Like kid-centric marketing campaigns featuring cartoon characters, artificial food colors (AFCs) are used in everything from candies to lunch meats to deceive consumers into thinking the products they’re buying are better, and better for them, than they truly are. Products such as the Tropicana Twister Cherry Berry Blast, a bright-red drink that features frolicking berries on its label, are often void of actual fruits and vegetables, relying on synthetic petroleum-based food dyes. Red No. 40, the artificial food color that gives Cherry Berry Blast its lurid hue, is one of nine dyes allowed by the Food and Drug Administration to feign freshness, give the appearance of authentic fruit and vegetable ingredients or simply add aesthetic appeal.
As if this overt deception weren’t frustrating enough, research has linked artificial dyes with problems in children including allergies, hyperactivity, aggressiveness and irritability. Most alarming, the CSPI reports that some dyes are contaminated with known carcinogens. Red No. 3, for instance, was banned from use in certain cosmetics after the FDA determined that it caused cancer in laboratory animals, but it can still be found in some fruit snacks. “Who needs to be taking even a small cancer risk with their food?” Lefferts asks.
One notable 2007 experiment out of Europe, the Southampton study, showed that, on average, 3-year-olds and 8- and 9-year-olds exhibited increased hyperactivity symptoms after drinking beverages containing different combinations of food dyes. For some children with ADD or ADHD diagnoses, research suggests existing symptoms can actually be worsened following exposure to artificial dye. In their extensive 2010 report, Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks, the CSPI backed these findings, detailing the risks associated with each of the nine approved dyes.
Dr. Lata Shridharan, a North Dallas pediatrician with a natural approach to medicine, says she absolutely believes food additives, including food dye, can be traced to ADHD. But the good news is that small changes can make a world of difference. “I see a lot of kids that, if you just tweak their diet, suddenly they’re fine,” she says. “They’re able to focus, and they don’t need all these narcotics.”
In 2010, in response to controversy surrounding artificial food colors, the European Parliament implemented a mandate requiring warning labels that indicate the presence of synthetic dyes, stating that they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” The requirement has resulted in a sort of de facto ban on artificial dyes, forcing many manufacturers to resort to natural ingredients for dyes, such as beets and turmeric powder.
Unfortunately, progress has been slower in the United States. In 2010, the FDA acknowledged the potential risks of artificial dyes, issuing a cautiously worded statement, saying, “For certain susceptible children with ADHD and other problems, the data suggests that their condition may be exacerbated by a number of substances in food, including but not limited to artificial food colors.” But they have yet to make any significant pushes to ban those dyes or at least require their conspicuous labeling. “We’re frustrated,” Lefferts says of herself and fellow experts at the CSPI. “We think there’s no reason to have substances in food that pose a risk and don’t provide any health or nutritional benefits.”
Plano mom Tonya Kuffel shares Lefferts’ frustration. She’s a firm believer in the harm caused by food dyes, because she says she’s experienced it firsthand. Her middle child Victoria, 5, has the strongest reaction of her three children to artificial coloring. When exposed at a birthday party or outing, her daughter loses all control, Kuffel says, screaming like a “crack baby.” “I compare it to a drug addict,” the mom says. “She just sits there and screams her head off for no real reason.”
Victoria may be the most sensitive, but Kuffel says her other two children don’t go unaffected. When they come home from school in exceptionally irritable moods, she says it’s safe to bet they consumed dye. To prevent such outbursts and in an effort to adopt an overall healthier diet, the Kuffels transitioned to a dye-free lifestyle. Exposure can’t always be avoided, but they try their best. “We won’t buy toys made in China, because we don’t want to expose our kids to lead-based paint,” Kuffel says. “Yet American companies sell faux foods, and we think nothing of feeding them to our families. They’re toxic too.”
Laura Levitan of Dallas has had similar experiences with her own children. She says her 6-year-old son Adam acts like he’s “crawling out of his skin” when exposed to dye. She doesn’t believe an outright ban is the answer but would like to see more transparency from food manufacturers. Until warning labels become the status quo, Levitan says she’ll vote with her dollars, buying products free of artificial dyes.
Levitan and Kuffel are just two of thousands of frustrated parents who are starting to speak up, voicing their concern over artificial dye to the government and food manufacturers. In a small win for health-conscious consumers, Kraft recently announced plans to remove Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 from select boxes of their popular macaroni and cheese dinners. Many are hoping Mars, the candy company, will follow suit. A petition on change.org urging the candy maker to use the same natural coloring it uses in the EU when manufacturing M&M’s sold here has garnered more than 140,000 signatures. “We know they can do it,” Lefferts says. “There’s no reason they can’t be doing it here, except they don’t have to. It’s cheaper to keep using dyes.”
Progress is underway, but Kuffel argues that real change must start with the individual. “The American consumer has more power than they think,” she says. Kuffel urges parents to think carefully about what they’re buying for their families, remembering that the dollars they spend communicate a message to the powers that be. “You have the power to make a change. It has to start organically at the community level.”
Dr. Shridharan echoes Kuffel’s sentiment. “It has to start somewhere,” she says. “If each person does their part, they can make a difference.”
To sign the petition for dye-free M&M’s, visit change.org/mmsdyes.
Published January 2014