By Dr. Mercola
Spotting foods with artificial colors is not as straightforward as it may seem, and although such additives are listed on food labels, the actual amounts used in common foods are not.
If your child eats a bowl of packaged macaroni and cheese or breakfast cereal, for instance, is he or she ingesting more than 30 milligrams (mg) of dye? This is the amount that has been found to cause behavioral issues in some children.
But it's not only rainbow-colored cereal, cupcakes, and candies that contain artificial colors. Even salad dressing, peanut butter crackers, soups, and chips often contain synthetic dyes. If you or your children consume multiple artificially colored foods at one sitting, the amount of dye can add up quickly, with unknown consequences to your health.
First Study Reveals How Much Dye Is in Common Foods
A study by Purdue University scientists reported the amounts of artificial food colors found in US foods, and revealed that many children could be consuming far more dyes than previously thought.1
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits nine different colors to be added to foods, and the agency certifies each batch for "purity and safety." Well, the amount of dye certified has risen from 12 mg per capita, per day in 1950 to 62 mg/capita/day in 2010. It's clear that Americans are consuming more artificial colors, but how much is in your food?
The study revealed that the amounts of dyes in even single servings of some foods are higher than amounts shown to impair children's behavior. Here's a breakdown of some name-brand foods and how much dye they contain:2
General Mills' Trix cereal: 36.4 mg Fruity Cheerios: 31 mg Cap'n Crunch Oops! All Berries: 41 mg Target Mini Green Cupcakes: 55.3 mg Skittles candies: 33.3 mg M&M's candies: 29.5 mg Kraft Macaroni & Cheese: 17.6 mg Keebler Cheese & Peanut Butter Crackers: 14.4 mg Kraft Creamy French salad dressing: 5 mg
Beverages are actually one of the largest sources of artificial colors in the average US diet. The Purdue researchers published a study last year that revealed the high levels of dye in an eight-ounce serving of many popular beverages:3, 4
Powerade Orange Sports Drink: 22.1 mg Crush Orange: 33.6 mg Sunny D Orange Strawberry: 41.5 mg Kool-Aid Burst Cherry: 52.3 mg Full Throttle Red Berry energy drink: 18.8 mg
With numbers like these, the researchers believed children could easily consume 100 mg of artificial color in a day, while some children may consume more than double that amount.
Food Dyes May Cause Hyperactivity in Some Children Even at Low Levels
In 2007, 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.5
This wasn't the first time such a link had been established. In 1994, researchers found that 73 percent of children with ADHD responded favorably to an elimination diet that included removing artificial colors.6
But in the case of the Lancet study, it 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 US, it will contain artificial color, including Red 40. But that same bar in the UK contains only natural colorings.
In fact, the UK branches of Wal-Mart, Kraft, Coca-Cola, and Mars removed artificial colors, sodium benzoate, and aspartame from their product lines as a result of consumer pressure and government recommendations – back in 2011.7
In the US, however, the FDA continues to allow these toxic ingredients in countless popular foods, including those marketed directly to children. At the end of March 2011, the FDA held a session to discuss the science on food dyes and hyperactivity.
They decided that warning labels are not necessary on US foods that contain artificial color because a causal relationship had not been established in the general population (although they did acknowledge that food dyes may cause behavioral problems in some children).
Research has shown that a small number of children react to very low levels of dye, while a larger percentage of children are impacted by larger amounts – doses that were deemed unrealistically high.
With the new Purdue study, however, we can finally see that many children could be consuming hundreds of milligrams of dye daily, levels that have not been previously tested for safety.
As the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) noted, a child who eats two cups of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a small bag of Skittles, and eight ounces of Crush Orange will consume 102 milligrams of artificial food coloring – at one sitting. Laura Stevens, research associate in the Nutrition Science Department at Purdue and lead author of the study, told CSPI:8
"In the 1970s and 1980s, many studies were conducted giving children 26 mg of a mixture of dyes. Only a few children seemed to react to the dyes, so many doctors concluded that a dye-free diet was pointless.
Later studies using larger doses showed that a much larger percentage of children reacted. But some researchers considered those doses unrealistically high. It is now clear that even the larger amounts may not have been high enough. The time is long past due for the FDA to get dyes out of the food supply or for companies to do so voluntarily and promptly."
Food Dyes Are Linked to Cancer, Behavioral Effects, and Allergy-Like Reactions
In their 58-page report, "Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks," CSPI revealed that nine of the food dyes currently approved for use in the US 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.9 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. As CSPI reported:
"Almost all the toxicological studies on dyes were commissioned, conducted, and analyzed by the chemical industry and academic consultants. Ideally, dyes (and other regulated chemicals) would be tested by independent researchers. Furthermore, virtually all the studies tested individual dyes, whereas many foods and diets contain mixtures of dyes (and other ingredients) that might lead to additive or synergistic effects. In addition to considerations of organ damage, cancer, birth defects, and allergic reactions, mixtures of dyes (and Yellow 5 tested alone) cause hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in some children.
…Because of those toxicological considerations, including carcinogenicity, hypersensitivity reactions, and behavioral effects, food dyes cannot be considered safe. The FDA should ban food dyes, which serve no purpose other than a cosmetic effect, though quirks in the law make it difficult to do so (the law should be amended to make it no more difficult to ban food colorings than other food additives). In the meantime, companies voluntarily should replace dyes with safer, natural colorings."
Research suggests otherwise, however, 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."10 Despite the growing research linking food dyes to adverse health effects, all the FDA would acknowledge at their 2011 meeting was that:11
"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."
Artificial Colors Have No Place in Children's Food
…or anyone's food for that matter. But because we all know children are easy targets for brightly colored foods, foods geared toward children often have the highest levels of dye. There are some signs that food companies are beginning to listen to consumer concern in the US, the way they have overseas. For instance:12
- Kraft has removed artificial colors from some (but not all) varieties of its Macaroni & Cheese
- General Mills has removed dyes from Trix and Yoplait Go-Gurt yogurts
- Chick-fil-A removed Yellow 5 from its chicken soup
- Frito-Lay removed dyes from Lay's seasoned and kettle-cooked chips, Sun Chips and Tostitos
- Pepperidge Farm removed dyes from Goldfish Colors crackers
Ditching Processed Foods Is the Easiest Way to Avoid Food Dyes
When foods are processed, not only are valuable nutrients lost and fibers removed, but the textures and natural variation and flavors are also lost. After processing, what's left behind is a bland, uninteresting "pseudo-food" that most people wouldn't want to eat. So at this point, food manufacturers must add back in the nutrients, flavor, color, and texture to processed foods in order to make them palatable, and this is why they become loaded with food additives.
If you must purchase processed food, organic varieties are free of artificial colors. But if you want to eat (and be) healthy, I suggest you follow the pre-1950s model and spend quality time in the kitchen preparing high-quality meals for yourself and your family. If you rely on processed inexpensive foods, you exchange convenience for long-term health problems and mounting medical bills. For a step-by-step guide to make this a reality in your own life, simply follow the advice in my optimized nutrition plan along with these seven steps to wean yourself off processed foods.