“He started melting down several times a week and was unable to recover,” recalls Trenton’s mom, Renee Shutters. “One day he’d be fine, the next he would get angry and not like himself. We thought he was bipolar. I was scared.”
After months of trying to pinpoint a trigger, Trenton’s mother and teacher drew an intriguing conclusion: On days Trenton had orange cheese puffs, blue sugar-free yogurt, or the other colorful fare often provided for snack at school, his attention cratered. And on the nights when his mom gave in and let him have a neon gumball at hockey practice, a temper tantrum was sure to ensue. Skeptically, Renee took the advice of a friend, purged her cupboard of anything containing artificial food color, and asked his teachers to keep him away from dyes as well.
“We saw an improvement within days,” says Shutters, who lives in Jamestown, New York. “Trenton is a model student now.”
Shutters is among dozens of parents, physicians and researchers who will converge on Washington, DC March 30 and 31 to urge a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel to recommend a ban of—or at least warning labels on—foods containing synthetic dyes.
Their allegation—that the petroleum-based colorants can lead to behavior problems, allergies and possibly cancer—dates back to the 1960s, when San Francisco allergist Ben Feingold reported that his patients’ radically improved when they kicked dyes. With few legitimate studies verifying the link, Feingold’s theories were largely dismissed. But thanks to a series of highly respected European trials connecting dyes to attention disorders, the European Parliament moved in 2010 to require warning labels on foods that contain them. Now U.S. regulators are taking a fresh look at artificial colors and their potential health hazards as well.
“Just the fact that FDA is holding this hearing is very significant,” says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which called for the meeting. “It sends a message that this is a topic worthy of discussion.”
Appetite for neon
According to the FDA, Americans ingest five times as much synthetic dye (roughly 60 mg daily) today than they did in 1955, with 15 million pounds consumed in 2009 alone. Vivid blues, reds, greens, oranges and yellows serve to lure picky consumers (often kids) in a competitive food market, and often impersonate “real food.” Case in point: General Mills’ Total Blueberry Pomegranate Cereal actually contains no blueberries or pomegranates, and instead uses Red #40 and Blue #2 to mimic the presence of the colorful fruit.
But food scientists note that color also plays a more practical role, restoring hues lost or muted in the manufacturing process, or turning naturally brown and gray concoctions into something more appealing to the modern eye.
“Without added color, some of these foods would look unappetizing,” explains Leslie Lynch, a sales manager at Food Ingredient Solutions LLC, which formulates natural food colors.
A history of dangerous dyes
Food companies have been using artificial colors to make food more appealing for centuries. In the 1800s, an array of lethal compounds, including copper sulfate, lead chromate and arsenic were used. Colors made from coal tar (also used to dye clothing) became the norm by the 1900s.
But over the years, following reports of children being poisoned and rodents developing reproductive tumors, hundreds of artificial colors were banned, including Violet #1 (once used in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own meat inspection stamp) and Red #2 (which is still allowed to be used in the coloring of orange peels).
Today, nine petroleum-based dyes have been tested and approved for use in food, and each batch must be pre-screened by the FDA—a fact that many see as a testament to their safety.
“There are a lot of things out there that people consume that the FDA doesn’t oversee at all,” notes Bonnie Jortberg, a registered dietitian with the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “I haven’t seen anything in the literature that would lead me to believe there should be great concern about food dyes.”