FDA Hears From Critics on Artificial Food Dyes. Next Step: Ignore Them

Last Updated Mar 31, 2011 6:44 PM EDT

The FDA has spent the past two days holding public hearings on the potential link between artificial food colorings and hyperactivity and ADHD in kids, inviting longtime critics like CSPI's Michael Jacobson and the Feingold Association to speak. It's an unusual occurrence that makes it appear as if the agency is finally poised to take charge of an issue that's been mired in controversy since the 1970s.

It's not. This afternoon, the FDA's advisory committee on the issue said there's not enough evidence to support the idea that fake colorings are a problem and that more research is need.

After all, the hearings are just that, hearings. They generate lots of press, but the FDA isn't obligated to take any real action, such as usage restrictions or warning labels. Nor is it likely to. For one thing, any clampdown would be fiercely opposed by the major food manufacturers who use a boatload -- 15 million pounds -- of food dyes in the U.S. every year. And FDA rarely acts to piss off a whole collection of food companies, and is probably even less likely to now, what with President Obama's new skeptical attitude towards regulation.

Food industry: Dyes are perfectly safe
In a statement on its web site, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents major food companies like Pepsi (PEP), Kraft (KFT) and General Mills (GIS), insists that food colorings are perfectly safe. "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," GMA says.

Many GMA members have switched to natural colorings in their products in the U.K., where warning labels are required, but they're not doing that here for the most part. That's because no one's making them do it, and switching would cost a lot of money.

Fake colors, it turns out, work better than natural ones. They last longer, are more stable and don't go into short supply when there are low crop yields. Natural colors are also 8 to 20 times more expensive, according to Rohit Tibrewala, an executive at food coloring company Roha USA.
Going hyper over red dye #3
Although the science on food dyes and hyperactivity isn't airtight, there's compelling evidence that the FDA shouldn't just sit on its hands or kick the issue down the road yet another five years. Or issue an empty call for more studies. At the very least, there's no good reason not to ban Red 3, something then-acting FDA commissioner Mark Novitch tried to do in 1984, saying the dye "has clearly been shown to induce cancer" and was "of greatest public health concern."

Other dyes, namely Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are known to cause allergic reactions in some people and have shown signs of causing cancer in lab animals. Of course, this isn't the same thing as leading to cancer in humans, but it argues for limiting intake, especially among children, who are getting the biggest dose of food colorings from a gazillion brightly colored, fun-looking foods.

And the way to lower the amount of dodgy coloring chemicals kids are eating is to require warning labels, which, as we've seen in the U.K., work wonders for inspiring food industry innovation.

FDA: Mission accomplished!
But the FDA, which is confining its scrutiny just to hyperactivity and not cancer, isn't likely to do this if they feel the link between colorings and hyperactivity is only limited to a small population of children, as it indicated in its background document for the hearings. Staff scientists wrote:
Based on our review of the data from published literature, FDA concludes that a causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established.
Perhaps the FDA is hoping that its hearings will generate enough public pressure to nudge food manufacturers to voluntarily start taking food dyes out of their products. The issue already landed on page one of the New York Times and on NBC Nightly News. Maybe for the FDA, that's Mission Accomplished.

Image by Flckr user Tony Hassall
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