Have you ever looked on the back of a candy bar wrapper and wondered what the heck all those added colors are? Many of them have been deemed potentially carcinogenic based on research, so why are we still eating them? These dyes are often used to make foods more visually appealing and marketable. Is changing the color of a snack – with no added nutritional benefit – really worth the associated dangers?
Since the time the Federal Food and Drugs Act was enacted in 1906, banning the use of artificial colors that were deemed harmful to health, the amount of generally allowed colorings has been reduced from 80 to seven.
Red No. 3, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6, Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2 and Green No. 3 are the approved food dyes for general use in the United States. Of these dyes, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 are the most commonly used. This report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest showed that these three dyes, which account for 90 percent of the dyes used in products, were contaminated with low levels of carcinogens.
The report also discusses Red No. 3, which was limited in use in 1990 due to it being a known carcinogen, but is still being used in food products such as candy. It was shown to cause damage to DNA and give thyroid tumors to rats.
Blue No. 2 is a synthetic version of the indigo dye from plants. It’s one of the food colorings linked to ADHD in children after performing an elimination diet and reintroducing the colorings.
The chemical additive 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) is used as a caramel coloring in many popular soft drinks. A study at Johns Hopkins showed that this potential carcinogen increases the risk of cancer for soda drinkers over the course of their lifetime. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not currently have any regulations on 4-MEI. Their official stance on it is that the levels of 4-MEI in food are below the threshhold of causing damage, although they acknowledge that manufacturers could expend extra effort to reduce 4-MEI in their products. The researchers from the Johns Hopkins study argue that the potential carcinogen exposure in soft drinks is unnecessary.
If you’re looking to remove food dyes from your diet, your best bet is shopping at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods Market, both of which have banned any products that contain artificial dyes.
There are also alternatives to synthetic food dyes for those who want to keep the color in their food creations. Wild is a company that makes natural food additives. To replace Yellow No. 5, they use turmeric, beta-carotene and annatto. For Yellow No. 6, a combination of beta-carotene, paprika, annatto and other ingredients are used. India Tree is another company, creating food colorings derived from edible plants. Natures Flavors uses colorings derived from beets, turmeric, annatto, purple cabbage, hibiscus and more. Their colorings are used in a variety of consumer products, and are also directly available for individuals through their website.