In response to definitive evidence showing artificial colors may increase inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity among young children, a call has been made by consumer groups to ban food dyes.
It is estimated that there are currently thousands of additives in our food supply. Some are good—like supplementing foods with vitamin B12, for example; other additives you have to weigh the risks and benefits—like the nitrites in processed meats, yes, they may increase your risk of cancer but, as preservatives, they decrease your risk of dying from botulism. Then there are additives used for purely cosmetic purposes, like food dyes, used to provide color to colorless and "fun" foods. According to the FDA, "Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green.” God forbid! Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.
Because we're eating a lot more processed foods, we're now getting 5 times more food dyes in our daily diet than we were 50 years ago. 15 million pounds of food dyes are used every year in foods, drugs, and cosmetics in the United States.
I always wondered why they called them like Blue #1 instead of their actual chemical name in the list of ingredients. Then, after reading this report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, I realized why. Here's a box of Kraft mac and cheese. It has Yellow #5. Do you think people would be as likely to buy this product if instead of Yellow #5 it listed Trisodium 1-(4-sulfonatophenyl)-4-(4-sulfonatophenylazo)-5-pyrazolone-3-carboxylate) on the label?
This list used to be longer, but different dyes kept getting banned, including Violet #1, "which, ironically, was the color used in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meat inspection stamp,” so they may have been actually further cancer-ing up the meat.
Years ago I featured this landmark study, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenge in perhaps the most prestigious medical journal in the world, showing artificial colors increased inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity among young children. So what happened? Well, the British government said, “OK, there's no health benefits to these dyes; only health risks, so it's a no-brainer"—and they mandated that food manufacturers remove most of the artificial food colors from their products. In fact the whole European Union said, “fine, you want to continue using these dyes, then you have to put a warning label stating: ‘may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.’” Many international food companies have taken them out of their products in Europe, but continue to use them in the same products here in the U.S., where similar regulations are not currently in place. Why not?
The FDA put together a committee that looked at the landmark study and conceded that the food additives may have resulted in changes in behavior, but the "type of treatment effects reported in the study, even though the investigators referred to increases in levels of ‘hyperactivity,’ were not the disruptive excessive hyperactivity behaviors of ADHD but more likely the type of over-activity exhibited occasionally by the general population of preschool and school age children," to which a distinguished toxicologist responded—look, low level lead exposure may only shave off a few IQ points off of kids, but just because they'd still fall within a normal range, doesn't mean it's OK to expose kids to it. And. in fact, looking back now, the lead in leaded gas may have been causing brain cancer and possibly even urban violence: the aggravated assault rate in cities around the U.S. seemed to follow the lead levels in the air pretty closely.
Anyways, the Center for Science in the Public Interest continues to call on the FDA to ban food dyes and for food companies to voluntarily stop using them. Good luck with that. In the meanwhile, some researchers recently suggested a way to see which food colors may be damaging your child's brain, advising parents to test artificial colors by purchasing little bottles of food dyes at the grocery store. Then have their kid do to some homework or something and then have them chug down an artificial color and see if it affects their handwriting/reading/math at 30 minutes, then at 90 minutes and then 3 hours. Also see if they get irritable later, have problems sleeping, and so on. If that's OK, they say you should try even more to see if that will mess with their mind. Hmm… If I may offer alternate suggestion, maybe we shouldn't buy our kids processed crap in the first place.
To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.
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This whole saga reminds me of the artificial flavor video I did the other day, Butter-Flavored Microwave Popcorn or Breathing. Amazing what the food industry is able to get away with.
There is a campaign to get Kraft to remove yellow #5 from their mac & cheese, but even if the stuff didn't glow in the dark, it's still just a blob of sodium (750 mg), saturated fat (4.5 g), and trans fat (2.8 g). The food movement might better spend its time encouraging healthier fare altogether.
For more context, check out my associated blog post: Food Dyes and ADHD.
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