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Artificial Food Dyes: Are They Safe?

Jul 16, 2014
The rainbow of bright colors that seem to glow from much of our food supply today may have you wondering about the safety of such bright colors not usually found in nature. Foods such as candy, kids' cereals, fruity beverages, snacks foods, and many others are loaded with artificial dyes. In fact, almost all processed food contains artificial food dyes, often more than one. But are all of these vibrant colors bad for our health? You may have heard the recent buzz about the FDA's decision to reexamine the safety of commonly used artificial food dyes. Let's take a look at the latest information.

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The FDA Food Advisory Committee's members include food scientists, toxicologists, epidemiologists and environmental health specialists.These medical and environmental experts met in late April, 2011, to look at all the available research and data on food dyes and behavior in children. They also listened to industry and consumer advocates on the issue. The FDA's Food Advisory Committee ultimately decided that there is no clear evidence that artificial food dyes cause hyperactivity or any kind of behavioral problems in children. They did, however, decide that a need for more research on the topic is warranted. Their conclusion was that all the current research does not show that color additives cause hyperactivity in the general population. However, the FDA did state, "For certain susceptible children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and other problem behaviors, however, the data suggest that their condition may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives."

The panel also decided (in a narrow vote) to vote against recommending that more information regarding artificial food dyes be added to food labels, in the form of a warning about a risk of hyperactivity in children.

The FDA's website claims that the idea that dyes and additives cause childhood hyperactivity has not been proven by research. The website states, "Results from studies on this issue either have been inconclusive, inconsistent, or difficult to interpret due to inadequacies in study design."

One way to think about this issue is that most foods that contain artificial food dyes are also heavily-processed and not very nutrient-dense (many nutrients but few calories). On the other hand, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods such as whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, eggs, natural cheeses, and unflavored/unsweetened dairy foods are naturally free of artificial food dyes. For overall health, these foods should make up the majority of what you're eating. All too often the foods that contain artificial food dyes are chock-full of added sugar and fat as well, so these processed foods should be chosen less often because they are less healthy.

The bottom line:  An occasional treat, even one with artificial food coloring, is safe as long as you are consuming an overall healthy diet most of the time. So those festive, colorful jelly beans are not poisonous, but I wouldn't recommend that you eat them every day. As with all foods, moderation remains key.

Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. Contact Kari at KariHartelRD@gmail.com.


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