By Robby Gardner, Assistant Editor
In 2007, The Lancet published a study sponsored by the British government on 300 children, which found that food dyes might cause hyperactivity in children: “Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial,” The Lancet, vol. 370, no. 9598 (November 2007): 1560–1567. The study’s results set in motion a move away from artificial colors, which have quietly lingered in foods, beverages, and dietary supplements globally.
Thanks to a 2008 vote by the European Parliament, any food product containing any of the dyes used in the British study must include a warning label on its principal display panel: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”
Speed up to 2011, and FDA is showing its own interest in the matter. The agency has scheduled a March 30 to 31 meeting to discuss whether “available relevant data” show a link between children’s consumption of artificial colors and adverse behavior.
The debate will focus on Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 1, and other “certified” dyes that FDA has approved (as opposed to naturally derived colorings exempt from certification).
Whether artificial, petroleum-based colors are ultimately safe to all consumers remains to be seen. “Available relevant data” is limited to what some contend were poorly-designed animal studies (although some of the studies indicated increased tumors in rats or mice). Other concerns include cancer-causing impurities in dyes, potential for synergistic effects when dyes are mixed together, allergic reactions in some consumers, and the fact that some available studies were conducted or funded by the color manufacturers themselves.
Consumption of these colors, which serve only a cosmetic function in food, may simply pose an unnecessary health risk.
“Consumers have no inkling that dyes may be harmful to children or the general public,” says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (Washington, DC). “Typically, colors are used to mislead people into thinking a food has more fruit, egg, or other ingredient than it does. And colorings serve absolutely no health benefit. At a time of increased concern over the safety of our food supply, it’s high time that dyes were eliminated.”
The food industry watchdog initially petitioned FDA in 2008 to ban eight synthetic food dyes; require a warning label on their use in the meantime; and correct FDA’s website, which states that there is “no evidence that food color additives cause hyperactivity or learning disabilities in children.”
There is no telling what will result from FDA’s meeting, but the potential risks surrounding consumption of artificial colors are finally getting the public’s and the food industry’s attention.
That’s good news for the long list of available natural colorants, like purple corn and beet juice (purple), saffron and turmeric (yellow), and paprika and annatto extract (orange).
“The prices on natural colors are going up because demand is starting to outstrip supply,” says Stephen Lauro, president of the color supplier ColorMaker Inc. (Anaheim, CA). “We are seeing a lot of contingency planning. Existing food and beverage products that use synthetic colors are being brought to us just to see if natural coloring is feasible, because if a warning label [requirement] comes from across the Atlantic, there will be a real scramble for all of that business.”
The drawbacks of natural coloring are higher prices and color tones that are sometimes not as vibrant as their synthetic counterparts. Manufacturing processes might have to be adjusted for certain products, too, including products such as hard candies and coated tablets (natural colors are not available as insoluble powders).
The other challenge is having a full spectrum of fully operational colors. A natural, kosher, high-heat, and pH red is currently unavailable, and the same can be said for an acid-stable blue.
Yet even with the minor setbacks of natural colors, a change may be coming—and who wants to stick a warning label on the principal display panel?