If that soda can had a warning label which stated “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children,” would you give it to your child? This is the decision parents in the European Union (EU) now have. After numerous studies indicated that artificial food dyes caused behavioral and hyperactivity issues in children, the EU finally took action. On July 20, 2010 new food coloring legislation went into effect in the EU which requires special labeling of foods containing six colorants.

Here are the six offending dyes:

In the US, it is very difficult to avoid consuming synthetic food dyes. Virtually every type of brightly colored candy contains food coloring as does soda, sports drinks, cereals, packaged snacks and most medication designed for children.  Food colorings in general, whether artificial or natural, have one thing in common: They are added to the food ONLY to make it look more appealing. Now, I try to avoid processed snacks and junk food as best I can, but throw a few Red Vines, gummy sour watermelons, or Peanut M&Ms in my line of sight and watch my willpower crumble.

It’s interesting how we’ve been conditioned to think that brightly colored foods will taste better.  In nature, fruits and veggies are best when they are brightest and perfectly ripe. But wait, when was the last time you saw a Smurf-blue vegetable? If synthetic dyes were suddenly banned, Mars, Inc. would either have to omit dyes all together or figure out a way to color their M&Ms naturally. Perhaps they would use extracts from beets, carrots and chlorophyll to make shades of red, orange and green. The colors would probably be less intense, but may actually have some small positive health effects, unlike the hyperactivity, tumors, and behavior issues you risk with artificial dyes.

Many groups are trying to get the FDA to ban artificially created food dyes or at least require special labeling to notify people of the possible risks. The EU finally took some action…when will the US follow?

What can I do?

First, try to cut down on packaged foods in general. If you make it yourself, you know exactly what’s in it. When you buy packaged food, stay vigilant and always read the label. If the food is brightly colored (or would never be found naturally), chances are, it contains artificial dyes.

Look for these words on the label:

These are artificially created and have associated risks with consumption. You’d never guess which foods contain colorants (breath mints, yogurt, baked goods, or cake frosting anyone?) and it’s sad to see the thousands of products specifically marketed to kids. When you find artificial colorings in one of your favorite foods, get fired up and write a letter or send an email to the food company. Pressure from the government and/or consumers is likely the only way we’ll see change on this issue.

Sources:

US Food and Drug Administration

Food Standards Agency

Center for Science in the Public Interest