Do Synthetic Food Colors Cause Hyperactivity?
January 11th, 2011
By: Julie Deardorff
Food coloring is the reason glace cherries are red rather than beige and that children’s tongues sometimes appear freakishly blue. But man-made dyes may do more than make processed food look vibrant and whimsical. Some blame the additives for triggering behavioral problems in youngsters.
Acting on research published in the Lancet, the European Parliament last year began requiring products containing synthetic food colors to carry warning labels saying that “consumption may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”
Now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has scheduled a March hearing on whether food dyes adversely impact children’s health. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, is asking the agency for a synthetic food-dye ban and to place warnings on products until the colors are removed.
The dyes are often used to enhance the appearance of sugary cereals, candies, sodas, fruit-flavored snacks, fast food and other products that are aimed at children and have little nutritional value, the CSPI said in a citizen’s petition signed by 18 physicians and researchers. Since naturally derived alternatives exist, the continued use is hardly worth any potential risk, it said.
“What’s the benefit? To make junk food even more appealing to children than it already is?” asked CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson.
Other experts say food dyes, which require pre-market approval, are among the most tightly regulated additives on the market and there’s little evidence for the long-suspected link between food colors and hyperactivity.
“The (synthetic food dyes) used in the U.S. are absolutely safe,” said Joseph Borzelleca, a professor emeritus of pharmacology and toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “Food colors are among the most thoroughly studied of the food ingredients.”
That hasn’t always been the case. Originally, naturally derived ingredients were used to make food look more appealing — saffron, for example, gave rice a yellow tint. In the 1850s, manufacturers began using long-lasting coal-tar dyes to brighten both fabric and food, a practice that sickened countless unsuspecting consumers.
Nearly 200 substances were in use when safety testing was finally required in 1960; only a handful survived the testing process.
Today, the nine synthetic hues approved for use in food — meaning they’ve been certified by the FDA — are used primarily to help restore the color washed away by industrial processing, even out natural variations and make foods look more appealing or “fun.”