If you’re in the habit of checking those all-important labels on your food products, you’ve almost certainly encountered food dyes. They’re used in everything from macaroni and cheese to candy sprinkles, and they’ve been around for more than 150 years. But that lengthy time span has not been without controversy. The three most commonly used dyes are Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Red 40. They are synthesized from petroleum and are added to a wide variety of food products, many of which are marketed to children. Many manufacturers use them under the belief that these artificial food colorings are cheaper, more stable and brighter in color than their natural alternatives. Over the last 100 years, several dyes have been banned in the United States due to adverse effects found in laboratory studies. There are nine dyes currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, all of which have been subjects of concern and controversy among some groups due to the fact that they’ve been linked to hyperactivity and aggressiveness in children. Some studies even show possible links to certain types of cancer.
While there’s been lots of debate surrounding the alleged link between Red 40 and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says the facts are unclear. “As in many cases, this research is supported by some scientists and disputed by others,” she said. “In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that there was insufficient research to say that food dyes cause hyperactivity, but did not rule out that food dyes might exacerbate pre-existing problems in children with ADHD,” she explained. “Still, that same year, food companies in the United Kingdom were asked to voluntarily remove these artificial dyes from their food products. This led to several companies, including Kellogg’s and Kraft, changing their products to include natural colorings such as beet juice, paprika, turmeric and beta-carotene in their products in that country, but those same companies still use artificial colorings in their U.S. products,” she said.
By simply checking the labels on your products, you can easily find out whether the foods you’re eating contain artificial dyes. “You can find these artificial colors in foods such as yogurt, cereal, fruit snacks and several types of candy. They’re also found in many types of beverages, such as Gatorade, fruit punch and some flavored waters,” Tillman said. “To avoid these, just try to eat real, whole foods that don’t contain food dyes. A lot of times, the secret to doing this is to shop smart and check the list of ingredients on the packages of the foods you buy. Also, you can try to support stores such as Earth Fare and Whole Foods, which have made pledges to not carry foods with artificial food colorings. There’s even an app for your smartphone called ‘Fooducate’ that allows you to scan an item’s barcode to determine if it contains artificial food dyes,” she added.
“The bottom line is, with no known health benefits and the possibility of health concerns, attempting to avoid foods with artificial colorings would be a good goal,” Tillman said.