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Synthetic Food Dyes Raising Health Concerns Among Doctors, Parents

LOS ANGELES (CBS) — When it comes to food, there is more than what meets the eye with synthetic dyes added to everything from cereal to fresh fruit and some believe it could affect our health.

Like the colors themselves, the debate is beyond black and white over the ingredient that for decades has been dripping with questions.

When it comes to behavior of Kelly King's daughter, she is certain of the difference that food dyes make.

Doctors diagnosed her with ADHD last year and put her on powerful drugs.

"It just didn't feel right to me," King said.

A few months ago the Kings heard about a possible connection between dyes and hyperactivity. Within weeks of removing them from her daughter's diet, she no longer needed medication.

"We've had amazing results. She's like a whole new child and she is herself again," King said.

"What I look at when I talk to the parents is, 'what kind of food are you giving your kid,'" Dr. Arlen Liberman said.

Taking dyes out of kids diets is a big part of Dr. Liberman's practice. At the clinic he shares with his daughter, they have seen again and again the change they make.

"They have risk and they have no benefits. The only benefit that they have is the look," said Krystle Lieberman, a licensed and registered dietitian.

Food manufacturers in the U.S. can use nine dyes – Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 make up 90 percent of the market. They also cause the most concern.

Take a shopping trip and you will see them everywhere, listed on a bright cereal box or even the more covert packaging of a pickle jar. They can be found in all kinds of products, from cough syrup to toothpaste; waffles to crackers.

Synthetic dyes are sometimes even sprayed on fresh fruits to sharpen their shades.

"They are really ubiquitous in this food supply that we have created," said Dr. David Wallinga of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

He believes that the science is there for customers to be concerned, saying that they dyes mess with metabolism. He added that yellow dyes deplete zinc levels enough in some kids to cause hyperactivity.

An added concern – the dyes include petroleum products, which he says have been shown to increase the risk for cancer.

Countries across Europe have already responded to the controversy. For the most part, you will not find the dyes on their grocery-store shelves.

Rather than scaring customers away, American companies, like Kellogg's, General Mills and Kraft, did away with the dyes overseas.

So some foods in Europe, like M&M's, do not look as bright.

"Why should the U.S. be the dumping ground for a worrisome food diet," Dr. David Wallinga asked?

The FDA did take up the issue last spring. Its scientists found that dyes could affect children, who already have behavioral disorders.

But the agency said that most children will not see a reaction, so they decided against putting labels on foods, saying that more research was needed.

Some grocery chains, like Whole Foods, decided on their own to stop selling products with synthetic dyes.

"I think it's great. It's so unnecessary to put that stuff in the body, especially for young kids," one shopper said.

"I would ban these dyes in a moment," said Dr. Liberman.

So does Kelly King, who says the difference in her daughter is beyond coincidence. For her there is no grey area when it comes to removing dyes from food.

In a statement the FDA said, "Approved food color additives are considered safe and they have not found a cause and effect relationship between dyes and hyperactivity in children."

Meanwhile, natural food colorings are becoming more common -- you just need to check the labels.

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