If you are a regular at Target, the quintessential American retailer, you might be glad to know that Target recently pledged to remove artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners and colors, including artificial trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup, from their Target-owned brand kids' foods by 2018. More than 75 percent of the store-brand kids' foods are already free of these ingredients. Market Pantry and Simply Balanced are Target-owned brands that sell items like macaroni and cheese, gummy fruit snacks, yogurts, granola bars, applesauce and crackers.
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This move is a part of Target's Corporate Social Responsibility and sends a serious message to other retailers across the country. Other companies have stepped forward as well. In 2015, ALDI removed certified synthetic colors, partially hydrogenated oils and added MSG from their ALDI-owned brands. Whole Foods does not sell products containing artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors or preservatives, or hydrogenated fats. A couple of years back, Kraft swapped the originally used Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 colors to naturally derived colors in their macaroni and cheese. Similarly, General Mills committed to eliminating artificial colors and flavors from their cereals over the next few years, and Mars launched a five-year effort to remove artificial colors from all of its (human) food products.
The FDA has approved nine color additives for use in the United States—including Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, which comprise about 90 percent of all dyes used today. Although research has linked the use of these dyes with problems in children including hyperactivity, attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), irritability and aggressiveness, back in 2011, an FDA committee found there wasn't enough evidence to conclude that artificial food colors cause behavioral changes in children. But research since has continued to confirm the links. Last year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit advocacy group, released a report, "Seeing Red," urging the FDA to require warning labels on foods containing artificial colors. CSPI submitted a letter to the FDA which included more than 2,000 complaints from parents, but no action was taken and regulations remain the same. There may be a causal relationship between food dyes and ADHD, but high-quality research on humans is required to know the true risk. In Europe, warning labels on foods with artificial colors are required and state, "food colorings may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children."
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"Cleaner labels" are one of the hottest consumer trends right now, and many companies are striving to clean theirs up. It's important to remember, though, that a clean label does not necessarily mean a healthy product. Fruit juice is still more similar to soda than to whole fruit. It remains to be seen whether the FDA will change the regulations on artificial colors. Until then, if you're concerned about the amount of dyes in your food—or your kids' food—cut back on processed foods.
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Many processed foods, like sugar-sweetened beverages and baked goods, contain these artificial food dyes. Heavily processed food products are low in nutritional value, and limiting them is key to eating a healthier diet. The safety of artificial colors aside, if you're eating dyed foods, you're also probably getting too much added sugar and fewer healthy nutrients. If you notice issues with your child's behavior, talk to your doctor. Regardless, it can't hurt to reduce kids' consumption of artificial food dyes. Kudos to the companies that are eliminating them. Choose products with natural colorants like beet, carotenes, annatto or turmeric, and keep your diet colorful the natural way by eating more fruits and vegetables.