Today's supermarket aisles feature riotously colored processed foods perfectly engineered to appeal to the part of your brain that says "yum." Those hyper-saturated colors have come to seem normal, even natural -- like the come-ons of tropical fruits. But they are increasingly produced through artificial food dyes and applied not just to candies and snack foods but to such seemingly all-natural products as pickles, salad dressing and some oranges.
Artificial dyes aren't just making Yoplait Light Red Raspberry yogurt blush and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese glow in the dark. According to a growing number of scientific studies, they are causing behavioral problems and disrupting children's attention.
Tomorrow, following the lead of European regulators, a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee will begin a review of research on the behavioral effects of artificial dyes. In a significant turn from the agency's previous denials that dyes have any influence on children's behavior, an FDA staff report released last week concluded that synthetic food colorings do affect some children.
The agency should take action. Allowing the use of artificial dyes violates the FDA's mandate to protect consumers from unsafe products. It also runs afoul of the agency's mandate to crack down on food that has been made "to appear better or of greater value than it is."
Concern about food dye is long-standing. In 1906, Congress took up the question of whether artificial dyes were bad for consumers with the first of several major acts. The most recent and stringent of them, passed in 1960, banned color additives that caused cancer in humans or animals. In the early 1990s, FDA and Canadian scientists found that Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 -- the three most widely used dyes -- were contaminated with likely human carcinogens. And while many foods include as many as five different dyes, even today the carcinogenic potential of such combinations has not been tested.
In 2004, one of us, David Schab, co-wrote an analysis of the best studies of food dyes' effects on behavior. That analysis found striking evidence that hyperactive children who consumed dyes became significantly more hyperactive than children who got a placebo.
At the same time, the British government funded two studies, each involving almost 300 children. Their results were even more startling: Artificial food dyes, in combination with a common preservative, could make even children with no known behavioral problems hyperactive and inattentive. Health officials in the United Kingdom urged manufacturers to stop using the six dyes -- including Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 -- involved in those studies. Next, the European Parliament required that foods containing those chemicals bear a label warning that the dyes "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." That is seen by some as the death knell for artificial dyes throughout Europe.
Beyond the behavioral problems and cancer risks, the greatest hazard that dyes pose for children may also be the most obvious: They draw kids away from nutritious foods and toward brightly colored processed products that are high in calories but low in nutrients.
Artificial colorings are meant to manipulate consumers' perceptions. Manufacturers tout research showing that redness enhances the impression of sweetness, and that in tests with beverages and sherbets, color did more to influence consumers' perception of the flavor than the flavor itself.
A world without harmful dyes doesn't mean blandly beige snacks. A range of vivid natural colorings, made largely from plant extracts, is already in use in Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States. In Britain, for example, McDonald's Strawberry Sundaes are made without artificial coloring; here, Red 40 adds to the strawberry color.
Fortunately, some U.S. companies are switching to colorings found in nature. But most resist, because artificial dyes are brighter, cheaper and more stable than natural colorings. It's also a nuisance for them to reformulate their dyed products -- and the government has given them no incentive to change.
Today, Britons enjoy all the colorful foods they have come to expect without many of the health risks they learned to avoid. Here, we get the same foods, but until the FDA bans synthetic dyes, we get them with a side order of unnecessary chemicals.