Going Additive Free: Are Food Dyes Worth the Risk?

fooddyesThe first question I had about food dyes was, Why do we even use them? Is there some sort of benefit to using food dyes? The answer is no. They've been around for decades, and are included in everything from macaroni and cheese to cereal, but they do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, and some experts say they can actually be harmful. So why do companies use them? To make the food "more appealing" to consumers, especially children. Most of the time these foods are already highly marketed toward children anyway, with fun shapes or cartoons on the box, and the color is just an added lure to make your children want to eat it. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, per capita consumption of dyes has increased five-fold since 1955, and each year manufacturers pour about 15 million pounds of synthetic dyes into our foods. Many dyes have already been banned due to their adverse affects on laboratory animals, but the report finds that many of the currently approved dyes raise health concerns. The three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are contaminated with known carcinogens, says CSPI. Another dye, Red 3, has been acknowledged for years by the Food and Drug Administration to be a carcinogen, yet is still in the food supply. These artificial dyes are made with petroleum, a crude oil product, which also happens to be used in gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt, and tar. Sounds like something you'd want to avoid feeding to your children, right?

What are the health concerns: risks of cancer, hyperactivity in children, and allergies to name just a few.

You might be surprised to learn that the same products that contain food dyes in the US no longer contain the potentially harmful dyes in the UK. In 2007, a study that took place called the Southampton Study (which was funded by the federal food safety agency in the UK) resulted with alink between hyperactivity in children and certain food additives. In response, the UK branches of Kraft, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Mars, as well as US companies that export to the UK, removed these harmful ingredients from their foods without making the changes back here in the US. Then the UK’s Wal-Mart equivalent, Asda, voluntarily removed monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, and hydrogenated fat from 9,000 of its own label products, ingredients that weren’t even part of the study. In addition, foods and drinks that contain six artificial food colorings linked to hyperactivity in children are required to contain a warning label. This shows an eagerness on the companies’ parts to clean up their acts for UK consumers, yet they haven’t done the same for Americans.

How can we help create similar change in the US? People are speaking up and asking companies to remove these potentially harmful dyes, you may have seen friends on facebook sharing this petition to Kraft asking them to remove the unnecessary dyes. Another way to make your voice heard is by choosing to speak with your dollar, avoid purchasing foods that use these additives and choose healthier alternatives instead. And there are healthier alternatives to food dyes out there that are already being used to replace dyes. Beet juice, beta-carotene, blueberry juice concentrate, carrot juice, grape skin extract, paprika, purple sweet potato or corn, red cabbage, and turmeric are some of the substances that provide a vivid spectrum of colors and pose no potential health risks.

Need some tips on how to identify and avoid food dyes? Click here to read a great article from 100 Days of Real Food with some good tips on what to avoid. Also, here are a few quick tips on how to keep these food dyes out of your grocery cart:

  • Keep in mind that man-made food dyes appear in ingredient lists as a name of a color with a number following it: Blue 1 and 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6.
  • Food dyes lurk not only in the brightly colored obvious places like Froot Loops, like the article on 100 Days of Real Food shows, they can be found in items like brown cereal, whole-wheat pizza crust, and even white icing. Reading the labels once again will help you make sure what you are buying is free from dyes.
  • Dyes and preservatives can also be found in personal care products, such as toothpaste and mouthwashes, some of which may be swallowed by young children. Again, read the labels carefully before buying them. Crest toothpaste, for instance, contains blue dye; Colgate’s Original is free of it. Clear, natural mouthwashes are a good substitute for those brightly colored varieties.
  • Most pediatric medicines are also artificially colored and flavored. Ask your doctor if there is an additive-free substitute that would work just as well. For over-the-counter medicines, many now come in dye-free versions.
  • Again, as I said in my first post on Going Additive Free, eating a balanced diet of fresh produce and whole grains will go a long way towards keeping additives and preservatives out of your child’s system. Whole foods are much healthier than processed and packaged. If you choose processed foods, look for the organic options which usually have little or no added synthetic colors or preservatives.

Click here to read my post on making my kids' lunchboxes healthier, and tune in Friday to WAMC to hear me chat with the folks on Vox Pop talking about cooking with kids!

More in this series: