The Artificial Colors Debate: Are They Dangerous or Not?

September 25, 2011 — By

It is Baby Safety Month Day 25, and all week we have been talking about chemical exposure.  In today’s post, we are taking a look at artificial colors.

A debate has been brewing for some time over artificial colors and these days, it seems almost impossible to keep up with the new findings and recommendations.  At issue is whether or not artificial colors cause behavioral problems such as ADHD in children.  A recent New York Times article gives the lowdown on the various positions being argued:

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) says, “All of the major safety bodies globally have reviewed the available science and have determined that there is no demonstrable link between artificial food colors and hyperactivity among children.”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests that while typical children might be unaffected by the dyes, those with behavioral disorders might have their conditions “exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, argues that some parents of susceptible children do not know that their children are at risk and so “the appropriate public health approach is to remove those dangerous and unnecessary substances from the food supply.”

Amidst the  arguments over whether or not the artificial colors carry any health risk, the elephant in the room continues to be, why are we adding them in the first place? What are the pros? Do we really need our food to be artificially bright and colorful? The answer is no, of course we don’t; we just think we do.  Adam Burrows explains in his paper, The Palette of Our Palates:

Alongside flavor and texture, color is considered by food scientists to be a major quality factor of food. In fact, it might be the most important of the three. “If you don’t have the color right, I think you can forget about the other two,” says Jack Francis, food scientist at the University of Massachusetts. “If it isn’t the color you expect it to be, you don’t like
it.” Judy Hevrdejs,  Chicago Tribune

But does our taste for color mean that manufacturers need to use the dyes that are under protest and scrutiny?  It does not appear to be so. There are natural alternatives that are currently being used throughout Europe.  The CPSI compares the very same strawberry Nutri-Grain bars sold in the US to those sold in the UK.  Those sold in the US list the colors Red No. 40, Yellow No. 6 and Blue No 1.  Those sold in the UK list the colors  Beatroot, Annatto and Paprika.

Why the difference? In Europe, even approved artificial dyes must carry a warning label that reads:  “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”  While the label is required in the UK as well, their official stance stops short of supporting that warning for all children, and  softens the recommendation to “you might choose to avoid” even for those children most at risk:

Research funded by the FSA has suggested that consumption of mixes of certain artificial food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate could be linked to increased hyperactivity in some children.

If your child shows signs of hyperactivity, or if on the basis of this information you have concerns, you might choose to avoid giving your child food and drinks containing [certain] artificial colours.

So what’s the bottom line?  As concerned parents who want the best for their children, who do you believe? At WeMakeItSafer, we are in favor of avoiding any unnecessary chemicals, including those where the jury is still out.  If the scientific studies are compelling enough for multiple countries to force warning labels, they are compelling enough to us.  Although you probably don’t need to have a panic attack if a teacher or neighbor slips your wee one a brightly colored “fruit” snack, we recommend avoiding artificial colors as much as possible.

Read labels – all of them – when you shop. Even if something seems like it should be simple and have only a few ingredients, you might be surprised.  For example, did you know that many brands of bread contain dye?  How about mayonnaise?  In addition to the obviously artificial color-ingredients (e.g. Yellow 5, Red 40), watch for things like “caramel coloring,” which may not be as benign as it sounds.  A good rule of thumb is, if you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it, and certainly don’t feed it to Baby.

When baking at home, try decorating with natural ingredients like fruits, herbs and freshly whipped cream.  Melted chocolate makes a great medium for writing “Happy Birthday.” Just melt it down with a little butter and let cool a tad before piping.  If you really want to color that frosting, use natural food dyes available online and in natural food stores such as Whole Foods Markets, but be sure to read those labels carefully, too. Make sure you understand what the colors are and how they are derived.


Baby Safety Month Day 25 Task:  Check your baby’s food for artificial colors.


Baby Safety Month –  Week 4 Checklist: Chemical Exposure

Sept.  22 Sept.  23 Sept. 24 Sept.25 Sept. 26 Sept. 27 Sept. 28

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Check the Color of Baby’s Food

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  1. Shad Divlio says:

    Academic difficulties are also frequent. The symptoms are especially difficult to define because it is hard to draw a line at where normal levels of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity end and clinically significant levels requiring intervention begin. To be diagnosed with ADHD, symptoms must be observed in two different settings for six months or more and to a degree that is greater than other children of the same age.