The Truth About Food Coloring

Inside of the vast majority of foods eaten daily resides a substance not often considered before consumption. It is in beverages, chips, cookies, candy, and even a food as natural as oranges freshly plucked from a tree. This silent element is a food color additive, and seven-year-old Nicholas Hughes believes he knows why it can be found in foods everywhere. He says it is “to give them fun colors, because, like, you just don’t want tan everyday” (ABC News video report). Despite the truth of his sage-like wisdom, food dye has been under scrutiny for decades and is not being seriously considered for banning due to its potentially harmful nature. It is undergoing the process of being proven that not only do these additives exacerbate the symptoms of mental disorders such as ADD and ADHD, but they can even be toxic when ingested. These dangers, already researched for the past forty years, are causing grave concern for parents that worry the color dyes may harm their children in the long run.

For thousands of years humans created their dyes out of naturally-occurring materials such as plants, berries, insects, and animal fats. It was not until the 19th centure that English chemist William Perkin synthesized mauve dye, a color unable to be made by natural means. It quickly became popular at a global level and wasn’t long before a plethora of synthesized dyes became available. As beautiful as these colors were, however, they created concerns for consumers due to their controversial origins. One of the eight FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) certified color dyes, for example, commonly known as Blue No. 2, contains indigotine. This chemical is not only used in food, but also as the chemical that colors blue jeans blue. Indigotine’s chemical makeup was mapped and synthesized in 1897, and improved upon in 1901. Synthesized dyes are primarily composed of petroleum, an oily, thick, flammable, usually dark-colored liquid that is a form of bitumen or a mixture of various hydrocarbons. As opposed to natural red dye, made up of various insects, a material such a petroleum is sure to make consumers hesitant to allow it into their food supply. Consumers would even call the additives deceitful in the way the vibrant colored foods lure them into making poor health choices.

Despite the claim made by the FDA that states dyes have not been found to contain “any inherent neurotoxic properties” (MLA), a study held in the late 1900s proves otherwise. During this study several generations of mice and rats were fed a diet that included five percent or less color dye in it for a period of approximately eighty weeks. Through the course of the weeks the infant rodents grew, but did not prosper. Instead many of them had allergic reactions to the dye, developed tumors, or even developed bladder cancer. For two days perfectly formed dye was found in the stool of the rodents, as they were unable to digest the unnatural substance. As they grew older, a common side effect of some dyes was disproportionate organ growth. Most interestingly, however, was the dye Citrus Red 2. It was the only dye not officially certified by the FDA, and, while used in miniscule amounts, showed to have perhaps the most adverse effects on the test subjects. It is currently used on orange peels not sent for processing to make them more orange and tempting for retail, and the effects on the rodents were disastrous. “At the 0.1% levels, rats showed differences in organ weights, incidence of edema-like swelling, a possible trend toward an increased incidence of fatty metamorphosis (fat droplets in the cytoplasm of cells), and a significant difference in weight gain in females. Researchers did not report an increase in the occurrence of tumors” (Fitzhugh 1959).

An additional study made in England was meant to show the dangerous correlation between the consumption of food additives and mental disorders. “According to the National Institute of Health,” reported an ABC news anchor, “ADHD affects 3 percent to 5 percent of all American children. In addition to being hyperactive, children and adults with ADHD may also suffer from inattention and impulsivity [after long-term consumption of food dyes.]” When this issue was brought to the FDA in response to the CSPI, or the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the FDA replied with a memo that included the following statement:

“In summary, based on the data reviewed in these publications FDA concludes that a casual relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established. However, for certain susceptible children with ADHD and other problem behaviors, the data suggest that their condition may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, artificial food colors.”

Headway has been made toward the banning of these detrimental additives, especially in other nations. After the UK medical journal The Lancet wrote in 2007 that dyes may be linked to ADD, European Parliament ordered warning labels to be placed on foods with additives in them. In 2005 Nestlé-Rowntree recalled its blue “smarties,” then later brought them back in 2008 after using spirulina, a mixture of two cyanobacteria, instead of Blue No. 2. At the University of Ohio, Dr. L. Eugene Arnold stated, “If something is safe, easy, cheap and sensible to do, you don’t need as much evidence to take action… Dyes are not an essential food group. We have an obesity epidemic; it’s not necessary to make food more attractive.”

As color additives truly are not necessary, it should be relatively simple to stop using them in the foods billions of people eat every day. Food color dyes cause concern to the public due to their worrisome nature, and their unnatural synthetics have no place in food stocks. To conclude, chemist Hamish McNab released his opinion of color dyes: “My own view is that any chemical should be regarded as potentially harmful when ingested. Note that naturally occurring chemicals can be just as harmful as synthetic ones—strychnine is no less poisonous because it occurs naturally!”

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