Additive coloring

Is it time to rethink food coloring?

I handed the bag of Peanut M&Ms to my sister: “Come on, I have this to share!” They had been released from the concession stand in the outdoor venue where we were attending a symphony concert, courtesy of her husband’s workplace. “I don’t want to eat this whole bag by myself.”

“They have so many artificial colors and stuff in them – I try to avoid all of that,” she said.

The way she worded her polite refusal got me thinking. Of course, M&Ms are unhealthy junk food. That’s why I wanted to split the bag rather than eat it all. But why isolate food coloring as a particular cause for concern beyond the general highly processed shit food? As a science writer, I set out to find out. Here is what I learned:

Food coloring is everywhere

According to the FDA, the consumption of dyes increased fivefold between 1950 and 2010. A recent study by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) estimates that the median total exposure to dyes for children aged five to 16 is currently about 0.23 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

It’s easy to associate it with obviously processed products like M&Ms, but food coloring can show up in a lot of unexpected places like salad dressing and medications. Even oranges will sometimes have their peels dyed a brighter orange to make them more attractive. “We’re probably more exposed than we think,” says environmental toxicologist Rachel Shaffer.

And children are most at risk: Many foods high in artificial colors are targeted at children, such as sugary breakfast cereals and wacky flavors in ice cream. Also, says Shaffer, since children are smaller, they take a higher dose relative to their body weight than an adult.

The FDA regulates all food colorings in the United States

The concept of food coloring has been around since ancient Egypt. But the first lab-created food coloring, a purple color, was invented in 1856 by chemist William Henry Perkin. It was derived from coal tar, which was roughly comparable during 19th century chemistry. (At the time, mercury, lead, and arsenic were also commonly added to colored candy). It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century, however, that federal oversight of food colors and additives began in earnest, falling under the jurisdiction of the FDA when it was officially established in 1930.

Nowadays, there are nine FDA approved synthetic food colorings on the market in the United States. Just three colors – Red #40, Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 – make up 90% of that figure. Eight of the nine dyes are derived from petroleum. There are also 28 “exempt” food colors that come from plant and mineral sources, and in two cases insects.

The current standards by which food colors are regulated date back to 1960, stipulating safety standards and conditions for safe use. All color additives must meet purity standards, eg. And samples of each manufactured batch of synthetic dye must be sent to the FDA’s color certification lab for physical and chemical testing for purity before the batch can be used. Products that use artificial colors must list them as an ingredient.

Not all products meet these standards. About half of the dyes that were on the market in 1960 were withdrawn in subsequent years because they did not meet updated safety standards.

FDA guidelines for the nine synthetic colorants currently on the market were established based on animal studies conducted between 1966 and 1987. Once a food additive has been cleared by the FDA, it need not to reevaluate its safety, says senior scientist Lisa Lefferts. at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group that petitioned the FDA in 2008 to ban synthetic food dyes; they are still pushing for stricter regulation today. The EPA also requires pesticides to be re-registered every 15 years, Lefferts notes. “But there is no rollback requirement for substances added to food.”

Some scientists are concerned about how it affects children

The biggest source of food coloring controversy is whether artificial food coloring is bad for children’s developing brains. In the 1970s, pediatric allergist Benjamin Feingold claimed a link between food coloring and hyperactivity in children, sparking several studies of the link.

the The FDA position on the subject, according to a 2011 study, is that there is no clear causal relationship between food coloring and hyperactivity, and that any sensitivity to food coloring is likely “due to a unique intolerance to these substances and not to inherent neurotoxic properties”. .”

But Shaffer says intolerance and neurotoxicity don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “We are not all genetically identical mice,” she says. “Just because you don’t see it in everyone in these human studies doesn’t mean this effect isn’t real.”

This year, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) published a very thorough meta-analysis of all the research ever done on the subject from 1978 to the present day: animal studies, human clinical trials and toxicological data. They found that 64% of the 27 clinical studies they analyzed found a positive association between the addition of food colorings and behavioral problems like hyperactivity in children. And the most recent studies — those published within the past 30 years — were the most likely to show a correlation between dyes and behavior.

Animal studies have also revealed that food coloring influences the memory and brain chemistry of rats in ways that appear to be consistent with human clinical data. “We are seeing biological plausibility for some of the effects we see in humans,” Shaffer says.

There’s a lot of things we still don’t know

It’s not always easy to identify the dietary effects of specific ingredients like dyes in processed foods, says Sheela Sathyanarayana, an environmental health specialist at the University of Washington. “Food coloring is often associated with sugary foods,” she says. “Being really able to control sugar is also important because we know sugar is linked to hyperactivity.”

A common criticism of food coloring studies is that many of them use mixtures of dyes, which makes it more difficult to identify the particularly problematic dye(s). Each dye has a unique chemical structure and potentially different health effects. Azo dyes (Red #40, Yellow #5, and Yellow #6) are the most frequently examined. But it’s unclear whether azo dyes are inherently worse than others, or just more common.

As a scientist, Lefferts says, there are definitely more questions about food coloring that could benefit from further research. But as an activist, she thinks the course of action should be for the FDA to reevaluate its position based on the research that is already available. “I would really rather see these dyes out of the food supply,” she says. “We have a lot of evidence that they cause problems. Let’s take a warning label. Or get rid of them.

European standards have changed over the past decades

In 2007, British scientists discovered a link between food coloring mixtures (mainly azo dyes) and hyperactivity in children without diagnosed ADHD. The study sparked an EU Food Safety Panel, which spent years reassessing 41 food colors and came up with stricter intake limits for several colours. Additionally, products containing azo dyes now require a warning label indicating possible adverse effects on children.

This has led to fewer artificially colored products on the European market, as manufacturers don’t want to have to use a warning label. Lefferts and Shaffer say they both support the idea of ​​using a similar warning label in the United States – something California may soon demand it.

As experts examine research and policy interventions, Sathyanarayana’s advice for mainstream consumers is simple: “Eat fresh fruits and vegetables, if possible to try and reduce the number of processed foods in your diet. Read the labels: the fewer the number of ingredients, the better.