What do Cheetos, Froot Loops, Pop-Tarts, Hostess Twinkies, Jell-O, Lucky Charms, M&M’s and Minute Maid Lemonade have in common?
They may soon be carrying warnings that their bright artificial colorings may be worsening behavioral problems such as hyperactivity in kids.
The US FDA has asked a panel of experts to sort through new evidence on possible health risks and other adverse effects in two days of hearings beginning today and make recommendations on potential policy changes, include warning labels.
Consumer advocates are welcoming the inquiry, as it has taken three years to get to this week's hearings. A petition was filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 2008 asking regulators to ban Red 40, Yellow 5 and six other colorings, according to the Associated Press.
Back in the 1970’s, when the notion first surfaced in public consciousness, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder was called hyperactivity, and a first wave of concerned parents embraced the Feingold Diet, which required lessening symptoms by giving children artificial ingredient-free foods with no preservatives or coloring.
A decade later, prescribing Ritalin to treat ADHD took center stage and the food additives issue faded.
Now the issue is back, with findings from FDA scientists that children with behavioral problems may have those conditions “exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives.”
More specifically, the agency's researchers suggest that problems linked to artificial dyes are similar to food allergies like a peanut allergy: “a unique intolerance to these substances and not to any inherent neurotoxic properties” of the coloring itself.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, quoted in The New York Times, claims that “All of the major safety bodies globally have reviewed the available science and have determined that there is no demonstrable link between artificial food colors and hyperactivity among children.” ADHD affects 3 to 5% of U.S. children, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Europe has been stricter on the use of artificial coloring, with the European Parliament passing a law in 2008 requiring products containing food dyes to carry warning labels noting they may affect children’s behavior.
U.S. government intervention in artificial food dyes is nothing new. More than 50 years ago Orange No. 1 dye, common in Halloween candy, was banned for toxicity. Next was Red No. 2 banned in the mid-1970’s as a carcinogen, but replaced by Red No. 40.
“Artificial dyes were developed — just as aspirin was — from coal tar, but are now made from petroleum products,” reports the Times. Natural dyes from fruits and vegetables, in comparison, are more expensive to produce and lack the same color hues and vibrancy.
Still, some brands aren't waiting for the FDA's ruling — witness Frito-Lay's move to go "all natural" and replace artificial coloring in its chips with natural coloring derived from beet juice, carrots and purple cabbage, a decision the PepsicCo-owned brand says was inspired by consumer-voiced health concerns. Whole Foods was also quick to announce that it doesn't carry any products with artificial dyes or coloring.
The FDA has already been answering consumer queries about the safety of coloring additives in food. Now, the FDA appears to be moving closer to many a mother’s intuition — leading the agency to scrutinize and regulate artificial food coloring more carefully.