Against the wishes of many prominent public health advocates, an advisory panel for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided Thursday that there isn't enough evidence to ban food dyes or require labels stating that some evidence exists linking food dyes to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). After a two-day hearing on food dyes at which a handful of doctors, researchers, and parents testified, the panel concluded that existing evidence between dyes and ADHD is weak and more research is needed.
The details: The FDA hearings took place on Wednesday and Thursday of this week at the behest of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has been campaigning against food dyes for quite some time and wants to see them banned from foods and medications. "I have monitored the safety of food additives for almost 40 years, and food dyes have always stood out as the category with the most problems," Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of CSPI and the lead author of a report on the hazards of synthetic food dyes, told Rodale.com in an interview last July.
But the FDA remains unconvinced by studies linking food dyes to a variety of problems, including hyperactivity in children, and said so in a report released prior to the hearings. "Based on the data reviewed in these publications, FDA concludes that a causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established," the panel of scientists wrote.
Many of the experts testifying before the FDA advisory panel seemed to agree that the science linking food dyes to ADHD is tenuous. But that research has been called into question. The CSPI's July 2010 report on food dyes noted that most safety studies are conducted by industry. Another group represented at the hearing, the Feingold Association, a nonprofit organization helping parents avoid synthetic food additives (including dyes) to treat behavioral, learning, and health problems, noted that the studies used food-dye exposure levels far below what children are usually exposed to. They used levels of dye as low as 1, 5, or 13 milligrams, but Shula Edelkind, the Feingold Association's director, presented results of lab tests her organization had done on a cupcake with frosting dyed with FD&C Red 40. The test revealed that the three tablespoons of frosting on the cupcake contained 58 milligrams of dye. "The more dyes ingested, the more people are affected," she said, citing studies linking food dyes not just to antisocial and violent behavior problems, but also to headaches, stomachaches, sleep disorders, speech disorders, learning problems, DNA damage, and in the case of FD&C Red 3, thyroid cancer in animals.
What it means: More food dyes have been banned in this country than any other food additive, but eight remain on the market. In the European Union, labeling laws require any food product containing dyes to bear the warning label "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." Because of that warning, many companies in that market have switched to plant-based food dyes, based on sources like grape skins, beet juice, and carrots, whereas in the U.S., food dyes are nearly always synthetic and derived from petroleum.
In the absence of labeling laws, the FDA should at least enforce its own standards of food dye safety, says Jane Hersey, national director of the Feingold Association. "If you take a look at FD&C Red 3, you see that it actually is not legal," she says. "The FDA says that it does not allow companies to use additives that have been found to cause cancer in humans or animals," referring to the study finding that the dye caused thyroid cancer in animals. And, she adds, the agency needs to reform its criteria, considering that the last time food dye safety laws were passed was in the 1960s.
Another troubling element to food dyes is their sheer widespread use, which has quadrupled since 1950, according to one doctor who testified at the conference. "There's no health benefit to food dyes," said Jacobsen. "They're just used to trick people into thinking there are some real food ingredients in processed foods."
Adding petroleum-derived chemicals to food doesn't benefit your health, and may be harmful. And it doesn't help the health of the planet either. So here are a few ways to avoid them:
• Eat whole foods.
Nearly all processed foods contain some form of coloring, so the easiest way to avoid dyes is to avoid processed foods whenever possible.
• Watch out for hidden dyes.
There are some unexpected foods where dyes may lurk, including cheeses, jams/jellies, and crackers. So read ingredients labels carefully, and look for anything labeled "FD&C," which indicates that it's a synthetic food dye. Also, as some foods contain mixtures of dyes, avoid foods that list the more generic label, "artificial colorings."