Hidden Food Dyes: Five Surprise Grocery Store Items to Keep Away from Your Kids

The FDA, determining Thursday that studies show no conclusive link between attention disorders and artificial food dyes like Red #40, may have saved us from the irony of potentially toxic processed food additives today. That irony? Natural food dyes cost more, and are less shelf-stable, so bans -- if they are eventually enacted after more study -- could raise the cost of your kids' favorite processed foods.

You may however, want to steer clear; not only are processed foods usually not very nutritious, but lots of people, including those who have experienced the worst mood altering effects of the colorings, would spend plenty to avoid them.

"It was the allergy medicine," said my writing group buddy Dana Cuellar. "My mom bought some for my 3-year-old and she turned into another person!" After a weekend of agonizing while her daughter screamed raggedly and stabbed her paper instead of drawing on it, she realized it was the Red dye #40. Eliminating it kept her daughter from, as Dana put it, spinning around.Red dye #40, as Dana writes, along with many other popular artificial food colors (AFCs), is a neurotoxin.

"Neurotoxins damage nervous tissue. Dr. [David W.] Schab, the Columbia psychiatrist, concluded in his report [a review of 30 years of scientific studies involving food dye and behavior] that the dyes likely cause 'neurobehavioral toxicity.' When I asked him why the reaction occurs in some kids and not others, he said ... artificial food colorings have a drug effect, the same way nicotine has a drug effect, or Vicodin. This is probably why AFCs have a greater effect on children; children are smaller. Dosage is a size-relative factor." And all this is why the FDA is considering the link between AFCs and behavior, and whether the agency should ban them or require warning labels.

The move on the agency's part seems unlikely. In a review of 35 years of studies on the topic, the agency said it found "a causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established." To mollify the Danas of the world, however, the FDA wrote, "For certain susceptible children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and other problem behaviors, however, the data suggest that their condition may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives."

The authors of some of those studies are pleading that the agency consider the issue with more than its usual skepticism. Schab and Michael F. Jacobson, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, made a plea that the FDA will take the problem seriously: "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.'"

As we wait to hear the FDA's decision, however, we can make decisions for ourselves; these often mean avoiding processed food, which is expensive and usually packed with sugar and other chemically-processed ingredients, anyway. Whether or not a link between AFCs and aggressive and hyper behavior in children has been made conclusively enough for the FDA, it can't hurt you to avoid it. You can't spend your life reading labels; so here are five places on the grocery store shelves you wouldn't have thought to look for Red #40.

1. Duncan Hines Deluxe Yellow Cake Mix (and several other Duncan Hines cake mixes). Yellow cakes are traditionally yellow because of the beautiful orange yolks of chickens whose diet includes lots of foraged greens and creepy-crawlies. But the powdered eggs most manufacturers use in their cake mixes (and most available to consumers) come from chickens who sit in small cages all the day long and forage only for the corn and soy-based feed scooped into their dishes. Duncan Hines' cake mix includes the following additives: Wheat Starch, Salt, Dextrose, Polyglycerol Esters Of Fatty Acids, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Cellulose Gum, Artificial Flavors, Xanthan Gum, Maltodextrin, Modified Cornstarch, Yellow 5 Lake, Red 40 Lake.

2. Hamburger Helper Lasagna and many other varieties. While every box of Hamburger Helper whose ingredients I reviewed contains several yellow food dyes, it's chiefly the tomato-based ones that contain Red dye #40. A study several years ago found that so-called fast-prep food kits, meant to make your dinner preparation quicker, don't actually save time compared to doing it from scratch. I make my own version of Hamburger Helper -- it only takes a spice or two (I'm partial to a little cumin and a lot of smoked paprika) and some chopped onions, plus a jar of tomatoes, with a couple of carrots chopped fine. My kids seem to love it, and it's got to be way better for you than the box kind. Hamburger Helper lasagna includes the following additives: Monosodium Glutamate, Maltodextrin, Hydrolyzed Soy and Corn Protein, Yellow Lakes 5&6, Red Lake 40 and Other Color.

3. Doritos Nacho Cheese flavor and other flavored tortilla chips. Even the "healthy" baked chips contain a long list of food additives and at least four artificial colors. Interestingly, it was hard to find the ingredient list on the Internet; it's on the smallest imaginable image on the Frito Lay website (increasing the size only makes it fuzzy), and I had to squint to make the words out. Baked! Doritos Nacho Cheese flavor contains the following additives: Monosodium Glutamate, Corn Maltodextrin, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Disodium Phosphate, Yellow 6 Lake, Yellow 5 Lake, Yellow 6 Red 40 Lake and Other Color, Dextrose, Sugar, Disodium Guanylate.

4. Reese's Peanut Butter Puffs cereal. Lots of cereals with colored shapes and rings and berries -- think Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, any cereal with dried strawberries -- contain Red #40 and a variety of other food dyes. But somehow parents just assume that cereal without bright colors should be fine. Right? Um, usually wrong. Reese's is particularly bad, with four different colors listed and others surely inside. Reese's Peanut Butter Puffs cereal contains the following food additives: Dextrose, Modified Corn Starch, Tricalcium Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Red 40, Yellows 5&6, Blue 1 and Other Color, Trisodium Phosphate, Tbhq, Bht.

5. Kraft Catalina Dressing. It's hard to get kids to eat salad; you may, like my mother before you, have decided that sweet dressings are a comfortable price to pay in order to get greens in your kids. But this one is practically all additives, starting with enough high fructose corn syrup to fill a couple of glasses of soda. Make your own with 1/2 part tomato paste, 1 part apple cider vinegar, 1 part honey and 2 parts sunflower or olive oil -- just shake in a jar and adjust the amounts of ingredients to your own taste (here's a more sugar-centric recipe). Here are the ingredients, less the good stuff: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Modified Food Starch, Phosphoric Acid, Xanthan Gum, Potassium Sorbate and Calcium Disodium Edta, Guar Gum, Natural Flavor, Red 40, Yellow 6, Blue 1.

It was hard to narrow this list to just five (but we had to stop somewhere). There are so many places where a critical shopper would assume food dyes would be included: think all brightly-colored candy, all neon-colored kid foods (yogurt squeezers, roll-ups, Popsicles, etc.), those "fruit" gummies, strawberry ice cream, fruit-flavored yogurt, juice drinks that aren't just juice, Gatorade, canned fruit salad, soda, strawberry milk. There are others you wouldn't leap to guessing the food dyes are part of the mix, in barbecue sauces, Twinkies, chocolate syrups, Pop-Tarts, ginger ale.

It's a relief to remember, though, that organic produce never contains food dyes; neither does whole-grain flour or unsweetened natural dairy products. Honey (raw, and local where possible) and maple syrup (grade B, organic when possible) are great ways to sweeten food without throwing your child's body out of whack. If you're serving your child foods that are (as my favorite cross country coach always said) "as close to the earth as possible," you can take a few easy breaths.

Peaches and watermelon fresh from the farm are gorgeously colored and entirely without additives. Strawberry season is coming up; there's no more beautiful red than that from a fresh berry smeared all over a toddler's face. I cut into some purple carrots from the farmer's market yesterday that stained my fingers. Color can be glorious in food; if it's added by a chemical company, though, it's likely that food wasn't very good for you to begin with.

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