Artificial dyes are found in thousands of foods—Fruity Pebbles, gummy bears, soda, vitamins, you name it—and some sources estimate their consumption has increased 500 percent in the past 50 years. That bag of skittles may be a go-to movie theater snack, but take one look at the label and taste a rainbow of lab-made colors from Red 40 to Yellow 5 to Blue 1. The FDA has banned specific artificial colors in the past, but plenty remain approved and on the market. Is it safe to eat all those artificially bright foods just because they look pretty?
To Dye For—Why It Matters
Color additives are used for a few reasons beyond painting Easter eggs. Rainbow hues are pumped into the foods we eat to offset color lost when food is exposed to light, air, extreme temperatures, moisture, or storage conditions. The additives can enhance naturally occurring colors or add whacky, totally unnatural colors a la royal blue ice-pops (or that horrifying purple ketchup from the turn of the millennium). But it’s not just brightly tinted red velvet cake or every variety of Kool-Aid that gets the Crayola treatment. About two billion fresh Florida oranges are dipped in synthetic dyes to brighten them and provide uniform color, and hot dogs and sausages often get a squirt of fake color to make them look more appetizing.
Here’s something else to snack on: While food manufacturers in some countries stick to plant-based colorings for certain foods, U.S. manufacturers often choose not to. Fanta in the U.K., for instance, gets its color from pumpkin and carrot extracts. The U.S. version? Red 40 and Yellow 6 (a dye that causes mild to severe hypersensitivity reactions in some people). And a strawberry sundae from McDonald’s is solely strawberries in Britain, but here petroleum-based Red 40—which is the most-used dye—gives the sundae its hue. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese was recently under fire for using yellow dyes 5 and 6 in the U.S. version while the British version uses no dye. "Natural” can often be a very broad term, but in the case of dyes generally refers to plants, and even insects, rocks, and soil components, whereas artificial dyes are made from synthetic chemicals.
One of the main concerns about food coloring is a purported link to adverse behavior, especially hyperactivity, in children. While previous studies on the topic were far smaller in scale, a study of 1873 preschool children found significant reductions in hyperactive behavior when food coloring was removed from the diet. All this hyperactivity talk may get you riled up, but it’s not to say that eating gummy worms will directly cause ADHD (though they do seem to affect children regardless of whether or not they have the disorder). Research shows that restricting the diet of artificially colored foods benefits some children with ADHD. But, it’s important to note that many of the studies linking the colored stuff to behavioral problems were made up of small samples. And remember kids, correlation does not mean causation:
This study may have confounding factors such as other common ingredients in frequently dyed foods, like sugar. So is it time to ditch all colored grub?
Taste the Rainbow?—The Answer/Debate
In 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington, D.C. petitioned the FDA to ban artificial food dyes (along with 19 psychiatrists, toxicologists, and pediatricians who co-signed) because of their association with behavioral problems. Two years later, the CSPI released a report furthering their belief that the nine artificial dyes approved in the U.S. are likely carcinogenic and can lead to behavioral problems. The report compiled studies on food dyes and found some cannot be considered safe given elevated incidences of cancers, birth defects, and allergic reactions (triggered by Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) associated with their consumption.
In March 2011 the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (which is a sector of the FDA) convened a meeting of the Food Advisory Committee (FAC) to address the health implications of food coloring. The FAC concluded the evidence was too inconclusive to link food colors to hyperactivity, and too insufficient to include warning labels on products containing them. While the food color debate isn’t black and white, it may be a good idea to steer clear of those foods that are generally not so healthy in the first place (aka—the processed stuff that contain dyes).
If all this pigment business has got you feeling blue, take solace in this: There are natural versions. Brands like Maggie's Naturals, India Tree, and Nature's Flavors use plant, fruit, and vegetable extracts to color that cupcake frosting or for making those Easter eggs all pretty. And if you’re feeling like a total go-getter, you can even make your own colors with real foods like turmeric, beets, purple cabbage, spinach, and hibiscus flowers. DIY food colors really don’t take a too much effort, either. A little heat, some mashing, and some water can create beautiful, intense shades.
Do you make your own food color? Do you make a conscious effort to avoid artificially colored foods? Let us know in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.