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Foods to Dye For
(Synthetic Food Coloring)

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed on page 22 in the March 12, 2014 issue
Reprinted on page 29 in the May 7, 2014 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Beauty, Medicine Matters.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

I wonder what the supermarket would look like if food dyes were banned. Would we buy and eat all those things that are made to look appetizing and nutritious? Our national requirements to list food dyes are a little loose, and make it confusing for the shopper as I discovered on my last trip to the store.

Today, the majority of our processed foods have synthetic dyes with vibrant and appealing colors. It would take a lot of imagination to guess that they are made from petroleum. Natural dyes derived from beets or carrots are rare to see.

According to Health Canada, a food additive is "any chemical substance that is added to food during preparation or storage and either becomes a part of the food or affects its characteristics for the purpose of achieving a particular technical effect."

Color sells amongst humans. Many animals are attracted to brightly colored foods, yet others see them as reasons to avoid a certain plant.

Take most lemonade for example. Reading the label may disclose that the vending color is derived from Tartazine also known as Yellow No. 5. There is weak evidence that repeated exposure may produce DNA damage. More commonly, I suspect it is to blame for hive rashes that appear out of the blue. Being yellow, look for it in anything that pretends to be cheese or lemon like. Macaroni, candy, pop and even vitamins and pickles have this stuff in them.

Red Dye #2 or Amaranth was banned in the United States in 1976 because of cancer causing fears amongst female rodents. Many other countries followed suit, but it is still used in soft drinks, baking mixes and even ice cream. Interestingly, France and Italy banned it with the exception of coloring caviar. It is also the reason red M&M candies disappeared for years, despite not containing any.

Red Dye #3 or Erythrosine was banned from cosmetics in 1984 due to weak evidence of causing thyroid cancer in rodents. It can be found in candies, bacon bit imitations and colored nuts. I even found it on a label in the "Natural Health Food" section.

So what is the big deal? All parents who have hosted children's parties know too well what happens when "open season" is declared, and toddlers are provided with abundant amounts of the worst "food" choices on the planet. Some become wild, inattentive and impossible to control, and in general, misbehavior rules. This has often been attributed to the "sugar high" from junk food, but studies have suggested that sugar is to blame for other problems and not the hyperactivity.

Synthetic dyes have no nutritional value and are found in foods that we should avoid anyway. Referring to these substances by simple numbers belittles the concern most parents should have. Spend some time reading the labels and looking up meanings. Avoid the trap of thinking that all selling items have undergone rigid testing.

Related resources:

Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks by Sarah Kobylewski, (Ph.D. Candidate, Molecular Toxicology Program, University of California, Los Angeles, and Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D. (Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest). June 2010. "Food dyes, synthesized originally from coal tar and now petroleum, have long been controversial. Many dyes have been banned because of their adverse effects on laboratory animals. This report finds that many of the nine currently approved dyes raise health concerns." Blue 1, Blue 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6. Authors' recommendations: "Because of those toxicological considerations, including carcinogenicity, hypersensitivity reactions, and behavioral effects, food dyes cannot be considered safe. The FDA should ban food dyes, which serve no purpose other than a cosmetic effect, though quirks in the law make it difficult to do so (the law should be amended to make it no more difficult to ban food colorings than other food additives). In the meantime, companies voluntarily should replace dyes with safer, natural colorings."

Is Red 40 Food Coloring Dangerous to Your Health? By Amy Long Carrera, 21 Oct. 2013.

Scientists Warn: Food Colors Damage Kids by Michelle Schoffro Cook, 31 Mar. 2011.

Are You or Your Family Eating Toxic Food Dyes? By Joseph Mercola, 24 Feb. 2011.

Living in Color: The Potential Dangers of Artificial Dyes by Rachel Hennessey, 27 Aug. 2012, Forbes. "Many popular candies, drinks, popsicles, puddings, yogurts, gums, boxed mac n' cheeses, baking mixes, pickles, meats, fruits, sauces and chips contain ingredients such as Yellow #5, Blue #1, and Red #40 - three of the most popular FDA-permitted ones. As if that's not enough, the dye in our day isn't limited to food. Chances are, if you take vitamins, use cough syrup, brush your teeth, wash your hands, shampoo your hair, launder your clothing and moisturize your lips on a daily basis - you come into contact with artificial dyes quite frequently."

Food coloring from Wikipedia.

Natural Food Colours from Food-Info, UK.

Report on the Certification of Color Additives from U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Food Additives from Health Canada.

Food Additives and Cancer from Canadian Cancer Society. "Food additives are chemicals that help preserve, colour and flavour our food. It is very unlikely that food additives cause cancer ... Any food dyes or cosmetics that were once linked to cancer are no longer used in Canada."

FDA Urged to Prohibit Carcinogenic "Caramel Coloring". Certified Specialist in Poison Information (CSPI) Says Artificial Caramel Coloring is Quite Different from Real Caramel. "February 16, 2011: WASHINGTON - The 'caramel coloring' used in Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other foods is contaminated with two cancer-causing chemicals and should be banned, according to a regulatory petition filed today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest."

Food Dyes Linked to Behavioral Problems from Inspiration Green.

Artificial Food Coloring Truth from Macquirelatory.com. What Is Coal Tar? Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Green No. 3, Red No. 40, Red No. 3, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6, What's Blue Lake 1?
Food Coloring and Health. Food coloring may cause hyperacitivity. By Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, About.com Guide.

DNA Damage Induced by Red Food Dyes Orally Administered to Pregnant and Male Mice by Shuji Tsuda, Makiko Murakami, Naonori Matsusaka, Kiyoshi Kano, Kazuyuki Taniguchi, and Yu F. Sasaki, Oxford Journals Toxicological Sciences. Laboratory of Veterinary Public Health, Department of Veterinary Medicine, Faculty of Agriculture, Iwate University, Japan. Toxicol Sci. May 2001.

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