After decades of mounting evidence that synthetic food dyes are unhealthy, and after years of campaigning by a leading public health watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration has made a move to consider restricting risky food dyes.
The additives, mostly found in packaged and restaurant foods, have been linked to hyperactivity in children, as well as cancer and allergic reactions, according to clinical studies and evidence dating to the 1970s.Under pressure from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which repeatedly cited those studies in a push for government regulation, the FDA announced it will hold a public hearing early next year to evaluate a potential ban on the dyes.
"The continued use of synthetic food dyes is hardly worth the risk. What's the benefit? Junk food that's even more appealing to children than it already is," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI, in a statement.
Children in Europe are healthier than their American counterparts in part because they benefit from government regulations that ban synthetic dyes from kids' foods, while the same foods in the U.S. are flush with unsafe additives, experts say.
Food manufacturers use dyes to enhance the appearance of cereal, pastries, and candy, though advocates say the bigger culprit appears to be the FDA for failing to regulate them, despite regular reminders that they put consumers' health at risk.
In 2008, CSPI filed a regulatory petition that called on the agency to ban food dyes, documenting the neurotoxic effects of Yellow 5, Red 40, and six others shown to alter child behavior. Numerous controlled studies over the past 30 years in the U.S., Europe and Australia have also proved that hyperactivity in kids is exacerbated by artificial dyes. And in the 1970s, a San Francisco allergist, Dr. Ben Feingold, was the first to report that patients' health improved when additives were removed from their diets.
But because the FDA has not encouraged the food industry to eliminate the dyes or switch to safer natural substitutes, many large companies continue to use them in the U.S. In Britain and the European Union, products either contain natural substitutes or are forced to carry warning labels if dyes are in them.
Multinational companies that sell foods without dyes in the U.K., but with dyes in the U.S. include Kraft, which eliminated artificial colors and flavors from its Lunchables line in Britain; Mars, which has eliminated dyes from its Starburst Chews, Skittles, and M&M's candies in Britain; Kellogg's, whose cereals, Pop-Tarts and Fruit Winders in the U.K. do not contain dyes; McDonald's, which uses real caramelized sugar, beetroot juice, and actual strawberries in its milk shakes and sundaes in Europe; Coca-Cola's Orange and Lemon Fanta soft drinks, which are dye-free overseas; and Haribo's Gold-Bears (gummi candies), also dye-free in the U.K.
Food makers defend the double-standard by saying they're simply following local regulations.
"We regularly customize product recipes to meet consumer preferences and market requirements in the countries where our products are sold. In all markets, we only use ingredients that are safe and meet local regulatory standards," a spokeswoman for Kellogg's told Consumer Ally.
In the U.S., only a few companies have adopted dye-free policies even in the absence of government action. Those include Starbucks, which does not permit dyes in any of its beverages or pastries; NECCO, which has switched to natural colorings for its signature Wafers; and Frito-Lay, currently testing dye-free snacks.
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