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Do Red and Yellow Food Dyes Disrupt Children's Behavior?
By Annie B. Bond
Birthday cakes with all the colors of the rainbow were the touchpoint that would change our friendly and gentle daughter into a belligerent crank puss for a few hours after eating her slice. We always braced for the aftermath of the birthday parties. Given that we didn't serve meals with FD&C food dyes at home, it wasn't too hard to track down the cause of her dramatic behavior changes as they only happened under isolated circumstances.
Anecdotal evidence, yes. But I surely paid attention when I heard that in 2007 the EU required a label on foods containing synthetic food dyes that states the product "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." In 2011 in the U.S., however, the Food and Drug Administration held a Food Advisory Committee Meeting about certified color additives, and while they determined that more study is needed, labels alerting hyperactivity in children was unwarranted.
Where does the division of the EU and the U.S. recommendations leave parents? To make up our own minds, draw our own conclusions and make our own choices.
Chemical food dyes have a long, nefarious and toxic history. They were used to disguise rotting food and adulterate food's appearance in general. In the 1800s, people died or were sickened after being poisoned from dyes made of heavy metals such as lead and arsenic.
We have butter to thank for the practice of a more widespread use of food dyes. Until the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the color of butter naturally varied with the seasons. It was yellow in the spring and summer when cows ate foods rich in yellow carotenoids, and white in the fall and winter when they were fed corn that is low in such carotenoids. It was a breakthrough for dairies when they could make butter the same color year-round. These new and increasingly popular synthetic dyes were less costly and more stable than natural colors made from plants and minerals, but there was a downside: They were made with toxic coal tar.
Coal tar started to be widely used for consumer products including food dyes in the industrial revolution, though in 1775 coal tar was linked to "chimney sweep carcinoma," one of the first chemicals to be linked to cancer from occupational exposure. Coal tar is made by combining aromatic hydrocarbons such as toluene, xylene, benzene, and petroleum distillates, and has high amounts of the ubiquitous environmental pollutants, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
In the U.S., the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 reduced the permitted list of synthetic coal tar colors from 700 down to seven. According to the FDA, those dyes for food use are chemically classified as azo, xanthene, triphenylmethane, and indigoid dyes. Although certifiable color additives have been called coal-tar colors because of their traditional origins, today they are synthesized mainly from raw materials obtained from petroleum.
The current nine artificial colorings permitted by the FDA in food are:
- FD&C Blue No. 1 (a triarylmethane dye)
- FD&C Blue No. 2 (an Indigo carmine dye)
- FD&C Green No. 3 (a triarylmethane dye)
- FD&C Red. 3 (organoiodine compound)
- FD&C Red No. 40 (an Azo dye)
- FD&C Yellow No. 5 (an Azo dye)
- FD&C Yellow No. 6 (an Azo dye)
- Orange B (not used in many years due to safety concerns)
- Citrus Red No. 2 (used rarely on oranges amid safety concerns)
The two FD&C dyes called out for hyperactivity in children are Red #40 and Yellow #5. An NIH study recommends that since current dyes do not improve the safety or nutritional quality of foods, all of the currently used dyes should be removed. There is a general agreement that there is inadequate testing for FD&C dyes.
What tests there are on how food dyes affect behavior seem to show that some children are genetically vulnerable to behavioral changes from dyes and that a smaller subset have very strong reactions.
"In Europe, that's enough to get it banned because a manufacturer has to show lack of toxic effects," said Bernard Weiss, professor emeritus of the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "In this country, it's up to the government to find out whether or not there are harmful effects." Weiss supports banning artificial colors until companies have evidence that they cause no harm.
"The fundamental problem is that good research studies about food dyes are very hard to do. The default position of the regulatory industries seems to be that food dyes are safe until proven otherwise," notes Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann.
In 1965, Dr. Ben F. Feingold, a pediatrician and chief of allergy at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers in Northern California, was way ahead of his time in seeing a biochemical relationship to behavior. His hypothesis was that "hyperactivity can be triggered by synthetic additives—specifically synthetic colors, synthetic flavors and the preservatives BHA, BHT (and later TBHQ)—and also a group of foods containing a natural salicylate radical. This is an immunological—not an allergic—response."
Feingold went on to develop the famous Feingold Diet, removing food additives including artificial coloring. The Internet is overflowing with success stories written by grateful parents. The Feingold site has an impressive compellation of studies on the topic. The diet's benefits are still controversial, but the Feingold Association claims that more than 50 percent to more than 90 percent of children responded well to the diet.
Prevention and Solutions
Imagine the array of colors in heirloom foods and plants of all kinds that could be used for natural dyes, just as they had been for centuries by weavers. For example, a natural match for Red #40 can be made from beets, elderberry, and even purple sweet potatoes.
The FDA has a broad list of approved natural colors that are exempt from certification, including beets, caramel, B-Carotene, cochineal extract, carmine, grape color, turmeric, paprika and more.
Baked goods, candy, cereal, beverages, orange peels, ice cream, sausage, maraschinos, medications, over-the-counter treatments and more, can all contain FD&C dyes. If you weren't a label reader before, now is a good time to start.
Parents like me who decided to follow the evidence before our eyes, that Yellow #5 and Red #40 caused behavioral changes in our children, look far and wide for natural food substitutes for those with these synthetic additives. It was wonderful when a candy shaped like an M&M but dyed with natural colors came on the market.
Baking with blueberry and beet juice becomes a common way to bring festive colors to holiday baked goods in households like mine. A child standing on a chair to be tall enough to stir the bowl hardly knows the difference between that and the commercial FD&C food coloring kits.
Experimenting with natural dyes can be a fun family adventure. You can juice spinach for green, carrots for orange—the list is as endless as the beautiful colors found in nature. Natural dyes are less neon, more nuanced, and can be very beautiful.
Once you have the colors you want to use, here, below, is how you can use them in baking. This one example for making red baked goods can be used for any color.
DIY Folk Formula for Red (Valentine) Cookies and Cupcakes Frosting
Choose any red juice that stains clothing! Examples include beets, strawberries, raspberries and cherries. Canned beets work effectively. Just drain the juice to use. Alternatively, thaw some frozen berries in a bowl and you'll find that there will be plenty of juice.
Substitute in equal measure the amount of juice you are using from the recipe's liquid. If the recipe doesn't include liquid, add enough additional flour to help absorb the liquid.
Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Patti Lynn
2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."
England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.
By Jessica Corbett
A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.
By Madison Dapcevich
Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.
The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.
The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.