A Happy, Healthy Family


The Dye Diet: Colorful Toxins

If you think of the foods of your childhood, you will probably remember Kool-Aid, popsicles, ice cream, candy, colorful cereals, grocery store birthday cakes or cakes from boxed mixes, fish-shaped crackers, soda, sports drinks, and many other junk foods.

Aside from the fact that they're loaded with sugar, they're also full of food dyes.

Now consider this--are you feeding your kids the same foods? Why?

What about gummy vitamins? What about grape- or cherry-flavored liquid allergy medicine or cough medicine? What about yogurt cups or tubes? Salad dressing? Cereal bars? What about Jell-O cups or pudding? Lunch meat or hot dogs? What about the seemingly innocuous yellow cheese stick?

If you're not careful, your pantry and fridge are probably loaded with artificial food dyes, which are made from petroleum, the same ingredient in tar, gasoline, diesel fuel, and asphalt.

The food industry uses dyes to make food more appealing. Without them, processed foods would be gray or beige.

Think about that for a minute. A gray hot dog. Gray "cheese" crackers. Gray cereal. Gray vitamins. Gray Jell-O. Gray margarine.

That all sounds disgusting, doesn't it? But how does food dye make it any better?

Why not just go for the real thing? Instead of eating bright red candy or juice intended to taste like a cherry, why not just eat a cherry?

After all, fruits and vegetables are naturally bright and colorful, and, usually, the brighter the fruit or vegetable, the more nutritious it is.

So what's the big deal? Why can't kids just be kids?
The big deal is that research has proven that artificial foods dyes cause hyperactivity, cancer, infertility, and a number of other illnesses. In fact, food dyes are illegal in many other countries, but they are still rampant in the United States. Why is the food industry continuing to pump our foods full of dangerous dyes when there are alternatives out there, and why are we feeding these dyes to our families?

Aside from the fact that the foods containing them have little to no nutritional value, they also attract our children because they're "fun" and leave them with little room for truly nutritious foods.

And for those of you thinking, "Who cares? I don't believe any of the reports saying they're bad for us, and my kids don't suffer from hyperactivity," ask yourself this: Even if artificial food dyes aren't doing anything bad to us health-wise and the science behind the reports is "wrong," what benefits are these foods offering? When you look at it that way, you'll see that they and the foods containing them are completely useless to our bodies.

Let's take a look at the top offenders.

Red 40 or FD&C Red No. 40
Red 40 is one of the most common food dyes, and it is made from petroleum distillates and coal tars. You'll find it in foods like Froot Loops, Fruity Cheerios, Twizzlers, M&M's, some barbecue sauces, sports drinks, some strawberry and raspberry flavored ice creams/yogurts/sherbets, some ketchups, medicines, and breakfast bars.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has named Red 40 as a human carcinogen, yet it is all over the grocery store.

Yellow 5 and 6
Yellow 5, or tartrazine, and Yellow 6 are also prevalent in processed foods. You'll find them in candy corn, potato chips, the sugary cereals listed above, soft drinks like Mountain Dew, cubed chicken broth, boxed macaroni and cheese, American cheese, and even some pickles.

Blue 1 and 2
You'll find Blue 1 and 2 in blueberry-flavored foods like Nutrigrain bars as well as candies, popsicles, and blue sports drinks.

Caramel Color
Caramel color, the food coloring that makes sodas brown, is the most widely-used food coloring in the world. It is not related to real caramel at all, however, and contains 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole, two potential carcinogens.

To learn more about caramel color, read this article by Consumer Reports.

A Note about Annatto Extract
Did you know that Cheddar cheese is not orange? I'm not just talking about fake powdered cheese or nacho cheese--I'm talking about cheese blocks, shredded cheese, and cheese sticks. So what's that orange cheese you've been eating your entire life? It is cheese that has been dyed orange using annatto extract. Read your ingredient list, and you'll see it there. Although annatto extract is, technically, a natural food coloring, some researchers believe that it causes allergic reactions, so why not just skip the risk and buy white cheese?

For an interesting NPR article on why food manufacturers color cheese in the first place, read here.

Would Your Food Be Illegal in Other Countries?
In the UK, foods containing dyes like Red 40 must also carry a warning label, similar to those found on packs of cigarettes. Think about that for a second. Would you buy a bag of jelly beans for your child if the bag had a big label saying that the ingredients in the candy have been shown to cause cancer, reproductive problems, or hyperactivity? These labels have led to a significant decrease in the use of artificial food dyes overseas, mostly because people don't want to buy such "dangerous" foods. Consequently, food manufacturers have begun using natural food colorings as opposed to petroleum-based ones. Some European countries have banned the used of artificial food colorings (AFCs) altogether. So why do we turn a blind eye to them here? One major issue is that companies like General Mills and Coca-Cola are members of the Grocery Manufacturing Association, and they obviously have a vested interest in keeping food dyes on the market.

How to Check Food Labels for Dyes
Food dyes made from chemicals must be labeled by name, whereas ones from nature can be termed "artificial colorings." Although coming from nature, they're still adding color that wouldn't naturally be there. Popular natural colorings that are generally considered benign are derived from beet juice, carrots, pumpkins, purple potatoes, saffron, and turmeric.

What to do? The Bottom Line
I'm a realist and understand that my children are going to encounter food dyes, artificial and natural, at other children's birthday parties, play dates, and at school. If they choose to, they'll consume dyes there, but we don't have them in our house, and I don't serve them at our own parties (stay tuned for a post on how to host a food dye-free birthday party). We do what we can and educate our children about why food dyes are dangerous so that when they are old enough they can make their own informed decisions.

If you're eating a food that contains an artificial petroleum-based food coloring, you shouldn't be eating that food at all. It's processed and of little nutritional value (and naturally gray). And if it contains a natural food coloring, take a few moments to consider what value it adds to your diet as well. Chances are, if a food needs to be colored, it's not that great for you to begin with.

Learn More
For more general information on food dyes, click here. To read the full text of Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, click here.

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