But according to scientific studies, these dyes are causing behavioral problems and disrupting children's attention. Some have even been found to pose cancer risks. The FDA has made an about-face on their previous denials that dyes can influence children's behavior, and has stated that synthetic food colorings do affect some children.
According to the Washington Post:
"Beyond the behavioral problems and cancer risks, the greatest hazard that dyes pose for children may also be the most obvious: They draw kids away from nutritious foods and toward brightly colored processed products that are high in calories but low in nutrients, such as fruit-flavored drinks and snack foods. Those types of foods are a major force in America's obesity epidemic."
While Americans continue to snack on cereal bars, fruit juices, candy and a host of other processed foods turned a rainbow of colors thanks to artificial food dyes, those in the UK are enjoying those same colorful foods … but without the artificial color.
This is because a carefully designed, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the journal The Lancet concluded that a variety of common food dyes and the preservative sodium benzoate cause some children to become measurably more hyperactive and distractible.
UK Takes Action Against Food Dyes While U.S. Ignores the Risks
The Lancet study prompted the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) to issue an immediate advisory to parents, warning them to limit their children's intake of additives if they notice an effect on behavior. They also advised the food industry to voluntarily remove the six food dyes named in the study and replace them with natural alternatives if possible.
As of July 2010, most foods in the EU that contain artificial food dyes were also labeled with warning labels stating the food "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." And this prompted many food manufacturers to voluntarily remove the dyes from their products.
This is why if you eat a Nutri-Grain strawberry cereal bar in the United States, it will contain Red 40, Yellow 6 and Blue 1. But that same bar in the UK contains only the natural colorings beetroot red, annatto and paprika extract.
In fact, the UK branches of Wal-Mart, Kraft, Coca-Cola and Mars have removed artificial colors, sodium benzoate and aspartame from their product lines as a result of consumer demand and government recommendations.
In the United States, however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to allow these toxic ingredients in countless popular foods, including those marketed directly to children.
FDA Decides to Keep U.S. Consumers in the Dark
At the end of March 2011, the FDA held a session to discuss the science on food dyes and hyperactivity – and decided that warning labels are not necessary on U.S. foods that contain artificial color.
"FDA concludes that a causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established."
This is despite not only the Lancet study but also a 58-page report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). In "Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks," CSPI revealed that nine of the food dyes currently approved for use in the United States are linked to health issues ranging from cancer and hyperactivity to allergy-like reactions -- and these results were from studies conducted by the chemical industry itself.
For instance, Red # 40, which is the most widely used dye, may accelerate the appearance of immune-system tumors in mice, while also triggering hyperactivity in children.
Blue # 2, used in candies, beverages, pet foods and more, was linked to brain tumors. And Yellow 5, used in baked goods, candies, cereal and more, may not only be contaminated with several cancer-causing chemicals, but it's also linked to hyperactivity, hypersensitivity and other behavioral effects in children.
Despite the growing research linking food dyes to adverse health effects, all the FDA would acknowledge was that:
"For certain susceptible children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and other problem behaviors … the data suggest that their condition may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives.
Findings from relevant clinical trials indicate that the effects on their behavior appear to be due to a unique intolerance to these substances and not to any inherent neurotoxic properties."
Yet, research again suggests otherwise, including a meta-analysis of double-blind, placebo-controlled trials by David W. Schab, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, which found artificial food colors may lead to "neurobehavioral toxicity."
For now it appears the FDA will remain mum on food dye regulations, other than to say more research is needed. But as Michael Jacobson of CSPI said to the Los Angeles Times, rather than the FDA asking their expert panel whether research shows food dyes cause hyperactivity, they should have asked "Is there proof the dyes are safe?"
The Right Type of Colored Foods to Include in Your Diet
Avoiding not only artificial food coloring but food additives of all kinds is one of the basic principles of my healthy eating recommendations. And this is extremely easy to do when you limit or avoid processed foods in your diet.
This becomes second-nature when you realize and acknowledge that food dyes are added to processed foods to make a product that would otherwise be an off-colored mess look appealing.
As Schab and Jacobson wrote in The Washington Post:
"Artificial colorings are explicitly meant to manipulate consumers' perceptions. Manufacturers tout research showing that redness enhances the impression of sweetness, and that in tests with beverages and sherbets, the color of the product did more to influence consumers' perception of the flavor than the flavor itself.
One dye marketer states that its colorings offer "a limitless palette, unmatched technology and the emotional connection between people and color.""
If you live in the United States, there are some companies, including Starbucks and Necco (which makes the candy wafers), that have dropped artificial dyes from their products. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's also carry products free from artificial food coloring.
However, the best way to get more color into your diet is to choose foods that are naturally colorful. You can find natural fruits and veggies in a rainbow of colors, and unlike with artificial color, naturally colorful whole foods will add countless important nutrients to your diet.