Color Me Concerned: FDA and the fight over artificial food colors

May 12, 2011

FDA and the fight over artificial food colors.

The increasing use of azo dyes to color food, especially food targeted to children, is an emotionally charged issue. One only needs to Google “food dyes children,” and more than 500,000 search results on the topic are displayed. Due to public concern and a petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (Washington, DC) to ban the use of eight synthetic food dyes, on March 30 to 31 in Washington, DC, FDA convened a meeting of its Food Advisory Committee.

The committee was charged with answering five questions posed by FDA:

1.    In FDA’s evidence-based review of artificial colors and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) in 2010, did the agency use the right criteria to come to its conclusion that a causal relationship between synthetic food colors and ADHD does not exist?

2.    Moreover, did the data support FDA’s conclusion that a causal relationship between synthetic food colors and ADHD does not exist?

3.    Are recommendations made by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel in 1982 with regards to a limited positive association between defined diets and decreased hyperactivity in children still relevant?

4.    Should warning labels be mandated for foods containing artificial colors?

5.    Is further research warranted on any risks posed by synthetic colors?

Before reaching a conclusion, the committee listened to experts, including Jim Stevenson, PhD, a psychology professor from the University of Southampton in the UK. Stevenson was the lead author of a 2007 randomized controlled trial that examined ADHD patterns in preschool children and found a negative effect in children exposed to a mix of colors and sodium benzoate, versus placebo.

Then, the committee heard public comments from the following: four representatives from the food industry, a medical practitioner, and six people with personal accounts of the detrimental effects certified food dyes had had on the behavior of their loved ones. In the end, the committee answered FDA’s five questions in the following way.

The panel agreed almost unanimously-13 to 1-on answers to questions 1, 3, and 5:

1.    FDA had reviewed the evidence-based literature on artificial colors and ADHD correctly in 2010.

3.    The 1982 NIH recommendations are still relevant.

5.    More research is needed to determine if the continued use of certified synthetic color additives is safe.

Other conclusions by the panel were split:

2.    Three panelists (21%) disagreed with FDA’s 2010 conclusion that a causal relationship had not been established. In other words, they believe that a causal relationship between synthetic food colors and ADHD may exist.

4. Despite the panel majority leaning to the conclusion that there is insufficient science to demonstrate a causal relationship between synthetic food colors and ADHD, the committee was split-8 to 6-on the issue of mandating a warning label, with 43% favoring a label warning of a possible association.

While the warning-label issue continues to be debated in the United States, other countries have favored on the side of warning labels. As of January 2010, Europe mandates a warning label for six food colors. Subsequently, many food and beverage manufacturers have voluntarily replaced artificial food colors with natural ones in Europe.

In my opinion, it is only a matter of time before food and beverage manufacturers in America will begin replacing yellow/red azo dyes with healthier colors. The question is, “Who will be first?”

Regardless of the science, consumers are starting to look for alternatives to azo dyes. The testimonies of the six consumers to the FDA committee were powerful. Their passionate call to  remove artificial colors from diets to benefit the behavior of their children and loved ones will be remembered and shared. And these six individuals claim that their testimony is only the tip of the iceberg. The emotion-laden demand for clearer labels and increased transparency will not weaken or dissipate. Moreover, every time someone goes abroad, they will return with evidence that other countries’ food industries aren’t using these colors. Or, if artificial certified azo dyes are still being used in foods and beverages, such products carry a warning label.

Concluding with an anecdote shared from the March meeting, FDA had armed guards escort the committee from the room when it was over. Obviously, there was concern that some attendees might get a little too worked up. Do you think it could be attributed to artificial colors they might have consumed?