Despite prevalence of food dyes, panic is mostly unfounded

Like it or not, food dyes are everywhere.

All you need to do is take whatever package of tasty snack food is in your hand, flip to the ingredients list and voilá, there they are: Food Drug & Cosmetics Blue No. 1, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and others, forming a veritable rainbow of edible, artificial colors.

These food colorings appear in the obvious places (Froot Loops, those ridiculously addictive sour gummy worms) and the less obvious places, like salmon and oranges.

Lately, there have been an increasing number of claims that these artificial food dyes are linked to cancer and can have negative health effects, particularly on younger kids. Some reports caution the dyes might cause hyperactivity, restlessness, and aggravate the symptoms of kids who have already been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.

Maybe food dyes are to blame for my unwillingness to sit still and write papers Friday nights.

Jokes aside, the discourse about the future of food dyes is becoming increasingly contentious.

As expected, one of the organizations leading the charge and trying to look out for eaters everywhere is the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Along with other food activists, the CSPI claims there is enough hard evidence to justify the banning of artificial dyes altogether.

To complicate the matter, most news coverage has made it hard to know what’s true and what’s simple, if potentially legitimate, speculation.

A quick Google search of the phrase “food dyes” brings up an interesting assortment of links, dotted with headlines like “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks” and “Food Dyes Linked to Allergies, ADHD and Cancer.”

As we’ve all learned by now, it hardly matters if the article hidden behind the link discusses both sides of the argument. What catches people’s attentions is the headline.

And so it comes as no surprise that parents and consumers everywhere are, well, freaking out.

But for all it’s worth, the panic might be for naught.

“We have here the case of bad science, or good science being misrepresented, combining with a popular press incapable of assessing scientific claims, to create misleading or false conclusions,” Jeff Schweitzer, a scientist and former White House policy analyst, wrote in an article in the Huffington Post.

He continues, stating “as with many issues impacting society the valid concerns of parents have accelerated past the science.

There is no unequivocal, or even terribly convincing, evidence that dyes cause the alleged harm.” Although there are studies stating dyes do have an impact on health, others aren’t conclusive at all.

And although the Food and Drug Administration found some links between artificial food colorings and increased symptoms in certain children diagnosed with hyperactivity, a panel of experts also recently voted against mandatory warnings on packages, stating that for the vast majority of people, food colorings are not a problem.

They might, in fact, be essential.

That’s because the color of a food plays an important role in how we perceive that food’s taste.

A survey done by Columbia University’s Food and Brand Lab showed people found un-colored Cheetos snacks to be “bland” and not as “much fun to eat.”

And an article in The New York Times considered life without food colorings.

Beige Jell-O? Gummy bears the color of muddy water?

Yet a major problem with food dyes is the ethical issue of making not-so-vibrant foods “fresher” looking.

Examples include coloring oranges or adding color to a piece of raw tuna that would normally grey from travel and air exposure are questionable actions.

But even this is unavoidable when it comes to selling products, and it is ultimately beneficial.

Though color added to fish might seem stupid in, say, Hawaii, it’s probably necessary for fish going to Idaho.

Considering natural colorings derived from plants, herbs and the like aren’t as stable or long-lasting as artificial food colorings, it seems that for now, life will continue with an artificial hue.


Eddie Kim is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. His column, “Food As Life,” runs Thursdays.

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