Synthetic and harmful dyes are found in all sorts of food items. From granola bars to fruit roll-ups to M&Ms to Kraft salad dressings to Kid Cuisine frozen meals and more. In fact, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) notes that each year manufacturers pour about 15 million pounds of synthetic dyes into the foods that kids are most likely to eat. Brightly colored breakfast cereals, over the top neon fruit drinks, and vividly colored candies are all mass marketed to kids and we’re buying those colors up; a dangerous move according to CSPI’s newest report, “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.” The report calls out the serious health concerns associated with the nine currently approved dyes used in conventionally produced food products.

Health Risks of Synthetic Food Dyes

  • CSPI notes that the most commonly used food dyes, such as Yellow 5, Red 40, and six others, are made from petroleum and synthetic chemicals, which alone is bad enough. Worse though these chemicals add up to a “rainbow of risks” for kids and adults.
  • Known carcinogens are the major problem associated with  synthetic food dyes. The three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are contaminated with carcinogens, says CSPI. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actively admits that Red 3 is a carcinogen, yet the FDA also approves its use in our food supply.
  • Allergic reactions can occur for children exposed to synthetic food dye.
  • Numerous studies show that synthetic dyes cause hyperactivity in children. And mixtures of dyes have been shown to cause other behavioral impairments in children.

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Getting Synthetic Dyes Out of Food

In 2008, because of the problem of hyperactivity, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of these dyes. The British government and European Union have already taken actions to end the use of dyes throughout Europe but the USA is still riding the color train.

It’s inexcusable for the FDA to ignore the health risks of food dyes and irresponsible of manufacturers who keep using the dyes. Especially when you consider that there are other options. Numerous natural food colorings are available such as beet juice, beta-caramel, carotene, carrot juice, chlorophyll, elderberry juice, grape juice/skin, paprika extract, purple corn, purple sweet potato, red cabbage and turmeric.

CSPI has urged several major multinational companies who don’t use dyes in Europe, to also quit using dyes in the United States. According to CSPI, these companies state that the reason they don’t use harmful dyes in Europe is because the government has urged them not to. The companies also say that they’ll continue to use synthetic dyes here in the USA until the U.S. government orders them to stop or until consumers demand they stop. Since the FDA isn’t urging them to stop, that leaves us, the consumers.

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What You Can Do About Food Dyes

Avoid dyes: Look for items that are free from the following dyes. Blue 1, Blue 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.

Support healthy companies: Stop buying from companies who produce overly bright, fake colored food and drink items. Instead support companies who voluntarily replace synthetic dyes with safer, natural colorings. Visit the food coloring database to see which colors are in the foods you eat.

Purchase USDA Organic food and drinks: The Organic Trade Association points out that organic handlers do not use synthetic dyes in organic food products as regulated by national organic standards under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.

Color safe at home: When coloring food or drinks or art projects at home, like cake frosting or play dough, be sure to use natural plant based food colorings. Just because you swear off synthetic food coloring and dyes doesn’t mean you have to live in a bland world. Many companies have safe vegetable- and plant-based food dyes that allow you to whip up a vivid batch of cookie frosting or color another treat of your choice. Check out the options below:

+ Center for Science in the Public Interest

+ Food Dyes A Rainbow of Risks – the complete report (pdf)

[cereal image via Flickr]