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Why Food Companies Should Stop Using Tongue-Staining Artificial Colors

After years of insisting that the artificial food dyes in those technicolor treats are perfectly safe, the FDA has changed course: Maybe Yellow 5, Red 40 and Blue 1 really do cause kids to bounce off the walls.

The agency has announced that it will hold a public hearing in March to discuss the link between food colorings and hyperactivity in kids, the diagnosis of which has been on the upswing for at least the last 13 years.

For food companies, dye removal recommendations or -- heaven forbid -- warning labels would be a huge headache. In March, FDA Week quoted an attorney saying that the industry's response to any labeling changes would be to "go ballistic." That's because food companies now use some 15 million pounds of synthetic dyes in products ranging from breakfast cereal, mac & cheese, fruit roll ups, fruit drinks and baked goods. They're much cheaper and easier to work with than natural alternatives.

But the good news is that replacement is eminently doable: with the British government and European Union zeroing in on artificial colors, many companies already sell chemical dye-free version of their products overseas. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has petitioned the FDA to ban artificial food dyes, reports that McDonald's (MCD) Strawberry Sundaes are colored with Red 40 in the US, but strawberry extract in the UK, and that the British version of Coke's (KO) Fanta orange soda gets its bright color from pumpkin and carrot extract.

And there's a bigger picture: The FDA's change of heart and public hearing, while preliminary, may mark a regulatory and scientific tipping point. The British government has asked food manufacturers to remove artificial colors and in the European Union food products containing dyes now come with a warning label that the food "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." Here in the US, companies like Pepsi's (PEP) Frito-Lay unit have already started working to swap out synthetic colors for natural ones. Other manufacturers would be wise to follow suit.

The problem with artificial food dyes is that not only do they turn your food -- and your child's mouth -- the color of anti-freeze, but they may also be contributing to your son's inability to sit in a chair for more than 10 seconds and his trouble doing basic math problems. Colorings have been suspected of triggering behavioral problems since the 70's, but recent research has given the theory more weight. A study done at the University of Southampton in England in 2007 showed that food dyes (and the preservative sodium benzoate) can have a manic effect in as little as an hour.

Some food dyes have also been linked to cancer in lab rats, and one in particular -- red 3 -- was acknowledged by the FDA back in 1985 to be a carcinogen, but the agency was blocked from taking action by the USDA.

Food manufacturers love using artificial colors. In an article in the industry journal Prepared Foods, Rohit Tibrewala, an executive at Roha USA, one of the leading makers of food colorings, explains why they're better than the natural, fruit and vegetable-derived alternatives:

Providing intense uniform color, [synthetic colors] typically retain color longer than naturally derived versions, while allowing for a variety of blues and greens not easily available naturally. They are easier to source and less expensive. In order to stabilize natural colors, often additives are needed; even then, they are not as stable. Since natural colors are crop-based, availability can be uncertain. For example, this year (2010), due to a shortage of carmine and turmeric, both costs increased almost 4-5 times over last year. Typically, naturally derived colors are 8-20 times more expensive than synthetic.
Image by Flckr user Tony Hassall
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