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Food-dye warning labels are now required in Europe; will the FDA do the same?

Earlier this month, the European Union began requiring foods that contain certain synthetic dyes to carry a label that warns consumers that the food “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” It’s not a ban, but the labels w

Earlier this month, the European Union began requiring foods that contain certain synthetic dyes to carry a label that warns consumers that the food “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

It’s not a ban, but the labels will at least grab the European consumer’s attention  and make grocery shopping a bit easier for parents who want to avoid feeding their children products that contain these chemicals.

In Europe, the problematic artificial dyes targeted by this new label regulation are widely known as the “Southampton Six,” following the publication of a 2007 Southampton University study (randomized, double-blinded, and placebo-controlled) that identified a link between the dyes and hyperactivity in children. Other studies, including a 2004 meta-analysis, have come to similar conclusions.

The European dyes are Tartrazine (E102), Quinoline Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow (E110), Carmoisine (E122), Ponceau 4R (E124) and Allura Red (E129).

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When will the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do something similar? It’s not as though this is a new issue. As the Center for Science in the Public Interest (SPI) has pointed out, a connection between synthetic food dyes and behavior problems in kids was first raised back in the 1970s. [Full disclosure: I worked for CSPI back then.]

In fact, it could be argued that the United States needs these warning labels more than the EU. Synthetic food dyes have always been much more prevalent on this side of the Atlantic. American consumers are less concerned, it seems, about what goes into their food.

For example, Kellogg’s strawberry Nutri-Grain bars are colored with Red 40, Yellow 6 and Blue 1 in the U.S. But in Britain, as CSPI points out, Kellogg gets the same effect using beetroot red (a food dye derived from beets), annatto (a dye derived from the tropical achiote tree) and paprika extract.

And then there’s McDonald’s “Strawberry Sundae.” In the fast-food company’s U.S. restaurants, notes CSPI, the sundae’s topping achieves its red color mainly as the result of Red 40. In Europe, the color comes solely from strawberries. (What a concept: a strawberry sundae with a strawberry color that actually comes from strawberries.)

Of course, these examples illustrate that it is possible for companies to make these food products without synthetic dyes.

Citing research on synthetic food dyes that suggests a possible link with cancer as well as with hyperactivity, the CSPI petitioned the FDA in 2008 to ban nine dyes currently in use here in the U.S. These dyes include Blue 1, Blue 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. They can be found in all sorts of products used by kids, including breakfast cereals, candy, fruit drinks and sodas, luncheon meats, and even toothpaste. So far, though, the FDA hasn’t even taken the baby step of encouraging food manufacturers to voluntarily stop using these chemicals in their products.

Right now, American parents who want to avoid the dyes must take the time to read the long ingredient lists on product labels.

For more information about CSPI’s arguments for banning synthetic food colorings and detailed information about each of the nine dyes it has targeted, read its recent report, “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks” [PDF]. The Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy also has a useful and parent-friendly “Smart Guide to Food Dyes” [PDF].