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Trick or treat: The hidden health risks of food dyes

By Brierley Wright, October 15, 2010 - 11:38am

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Trick or treat: The hidden health risks of food dyes

I have a hard time saying “no” to gummy candy. But I won’t eat just any variety (bring on the bear-shaped gummies or anything sour-flavored, hold the gumdrops) and I’m choosy about my brands too. So particular, actually, that when my husband travels overseas my only request is that he bring back a special sour gummy candy because I can’t find it here at home.

My particularity, however, had never taken me into the organic category. In fact, I’ve scoffed at the idea of organic gummies in the past. Candy is candy—there’s nothing about it that’s healthy, so what does it matter if it’s organic?

Related:
15 foods you don’t need to buy organic
12 Foods You Should Buy Organic

Well, I changed my tune when I read what Milton Stokes, M.P.H., R.D., wrote in the November/December issue of EatingWell Magazine about the potential health risks of synthetic food dyes—which are in everything from candy and ice cream to breakfast cereals. While natural colorants made from foods like beets are available, many manufacturers opt for synthetic dyes—which appear in ingredient lists as a name of a color with a number following it: Blue 1 and 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Red 3 and 40, Yellow 5 and 6.

According to a recent report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, these man-made food dyes may have dangerous health consequences when it comes to hyperactivity in children and cancer. This is why the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based consumer-watchdog group has asked the Food and Drug Administration to ban them. And in July 2010, the European Parliament’s mandate that foods and beverages containing food dyes must be labeled as such went into effect for the entire European Union.

So before you go out and buy your Halloween candy or colorful food dyes and sprinkles for your cupcakes and other holiday treats, take a look at the highlights of what Stokes found:

Related: Find healthy Halloween treats and party recipes here.

  • Preliminary evidence suggests that many children have a slight sensitivity to food dyes—and a smaller percentage are very sensitive. “We see reactions in sensitive individuals that include core ADHD symptoms, like difficulty sitting in a chair and interrupting conversations,” says David Schab, M.D., M.P.H., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and co-author of a 2004 meta-analysis that found food dyes promote hyperactive behavior in already hyperactive children.

Related: Do pesticides on nonorganic produce cause ADHD in kids?

  • A U.S. study published in Science found that when children who scored high on a scale measuring hyperactivity consumed a food-dye blend they performed worse on tests that measured their ability to recall images than when they drank a placebo.
  • A 2007 British study found that children who consumed a mixture of common synthetic dyes displayed hyperactive behavior within an hour of consumption. (These children had not been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.)
  • The three most widely used culprits—Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Red 40—contain compounds, including benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl, that research has also linked with cancer.

Bottom Line: The research isn’t necessarily the most compelling reason to give up food dyes: “Foods with dyes are often riddled with other nutritional problems, like excess calories and fat,” says Schab, who points out that childhood obesity is a far greater public health concern.

But if you’re concerned, ditch the potentially dangerous synthetic dyes. Look for foods bearing the green-and-white USDA certified organic label, but be aware that foods labeled “made with organic ingredients” may still contain synthetic dyes. You can also check product ingredient lists for beet, carotenes, annatto, capsanthin (a paprika extract)—as all are natural colorants. Counterintuitively, the terms “artificial color,” “artificial color added” or “color added” also indicate that nature-derived pigments were used, since synthetic dyes must be listed by their names.

For a DIY solution at home to make your cakes, cupcakes and cookies look festive, use food dyes and sprinkles that use natural colorants from concentrated vegetable pigments. Get product suggestions here.

Personally, I’m not going to eat all organic candy all the time—some of my favorites just aren’t organic. But I’ll probably spring for the organic candy to hand out to the kids in the neighborhood on Halloween.

Do you avoid synthetic—or man-made—food dyes? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Brierley Wright, Health Blog, Healthy kids, Nutrition, Wellness

Brierley Wright
Brierley's interest in nutrition and food come together in her position as nutrition editor at EatingWell. Brierley holds a master’s degree in Nutrition Communication from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. A Registered Dietitian, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Vermont.

Brierley asks: Do you avoid synthetic—or man-made—food dyes?

Tell us what you think:

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