Nancy Cordes is the transportation and consumer safety correspondent for CBS News.
One of the most common ingredients in the food we eat isn't even a food. It's food dye.
Food dyes are synthetic chemicals and you've seen them on many an ingredient list. They've got names like "Red 40" and "Blue 2." Without them, your cheesy macaroni might not be yellow and your fruit punch might not be red. Thousands of grocery store items contain artificial food dyes. We even spotted a package of "100% Real" potato au gratin today that gets its golden hue from 100 percent real "Yellow 5 Lake" and "Yellow 6 Lake."
There have been a lot of studies on the effects of artificial food dyes on children, dating back to the 1970s. Some showed that food dyes could cause behavioral problems in children, and others didn't. But a few years ago, an analysis of 21 of the most conclusive studies found compelling evidence that, indeed, artificial dyes could contribute to hyperactivity, restlessness, and attention problems in some children – particularly those with ADHD. What's more, the studies suggested that removing dyes from those children's diet was a quarter to half as effective in reducing those symptoms as giving the kids Ritalin or other stimulants. In other words, certain kids with ADHD might not need drugs if the artificial dyes were removed from their diets.
Kids like color; thus artificial dyes are most prevalent in products that appeal to children – such as snack foods and cereals. Parents who want to avoid artificial dyes can find it's a complicated process requiring careful examination of each ingredient label. One brand of tortilla chip may contain two dyes while the brand sitting right next to it contains none. Just because a food item is white or pale-colored is no guarantee is does not contain dyes. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods claim the products they sell contain no artificial dyes, but not every shopper has access to those chains. And of course, restaurants don't post ingredient lists on their menus!
The FDA continues to maintain that artificial dyes are safe, citing numerous studies that found no ill effects. But today the Center for Science in the Public Interest called on the FDA to ban eight of the most common artificial dyes, or at least affix a warning label to products that contain them: "Warning: The artificial coloring in this food causes hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children."