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Artificial food colors.

You may have heard or seen General Mills' recent announcement that they will begin removing artificial food colors and flavors from their cereals. They are not the only food company to announce changes in their products. For example, in response to a massive petition signed by 364,000 consumers, Kraft is removing artificial food dyes--yellow #5 and yellow #6--from their macaroni and cheese products and will replace them with natural pigments such as paprika, annatto, and tumeric. To begin, they are removing dyes from mac and cheese products that target children to be followed by all their macaroni and cheese products.

Nestle has also announced that it is removing artificial flavors and colorings from all of its chocolate candies by the end of 2015. So the inside of a Butterfinger will no longer be dyed orange using artificial ingredients but will use annatto instead! Annatto is made from seeds of the achiote tree that grows in subtropic regions. (Although the vast majority of people tolerate annatto just fine, a few are allergic to it).

To keep up with Nestle, the chocolate giant Hershey has announced that it will reformulate its candies to use "simpler ingredients" that are easy to understand by customers. Exactly what that means is not clear!

Some restaurants are also changing the ingredients they use to be less synthetic and more "natural." Chick-fil-A announced that they will remove artificial food dyes and high fructose corn syrup from its food products. For example, their chicken soup will no longer use artificial yellow dye.

Panera will remove all artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners in its foods by 2016. However, there is a catch: This does not apply to their beverages because they can't control what other manufacturers add to the beverages they sell.

So what are artificial food colors and why is there such concern from consumers? In the United States there are seven artificial food dyes approved for use by the Food & Drug Administration. They are used to color most soda pop, fruit drinks, and other beverages, many foods, and most candies.

The most commonly used dye is Red #40 followed by Yellow #5, Yellow #6, and Blue #1. Red #3, Blue #2, and Green #3 are used less frequently. Artificial food colors are banned in Norway and Austria and are being phased out by the United Kingdom and other European countries.

Of special interest to doctors, researchers, and parents are two studies conducted in the U.K. where a large group of children were given artificial food dyes mixed with the preservative sodium benzoate in a double-blind, placebo-controlled manner. Adverse reactions occurred both in children with and without ADFID suggesting that this could be a general public health problem. Of course, the reactions could have been from the sodium benzoate and not the dyes, or from both.

All these dyes are derived from petroleum by-products. Since the 1970s there have been concerns about their effects on behavior in children--hyperactivity, inattention, sleep problems, and irritability.

Early studies using a low amount (around 26 milligrams) of dye were generally negative. There seemed to be no or few responses to challenges with one or more dyes. However, research studies using larger amounts (50 or more milligrams) of dyes revealed that a subpopulation of children with ADHD reacted to the dyes.

Recent research from Purdue University reported that the amounts of artificial food colors consumed in beverages, foods, and candies could be quite large depending on food selection. They reported that it would not be difficult for a child to consume 100 mg or more each day. For example, a diet of brightly colored cereals, beverages, baked goods, and some candies could easily contain more than 100 mg.

Why do manufacturers add artificial colors to their products? One reason is to standardize the color of a product so that it always looks the same.

Another reason is that heat, acidity, processing, and storage may change the natural color of a food; artificial colors are added to make up for the losses.

A third reason is that some products contain artificial flavors so if a food is supposed to taste like cherry, artificial red dye is added to make it look like cherry.

A fourth reason is to attract the attention of shoppers. Children especially like bright colors and will pressure parents into purchasing the product.

A fifth reason is to con parents into buying a product! For example, our store has two "strawberry" milk products that are artificially flavored. One is colored with Red #3 and the other with Red #40. Neither contains any strawberries. A busy mom or dad sees Strawberry Milk, doesn't have time to read the labels, and assumes the product has milk and real strawberries. So it's important to read all labels.

Artificial colors are found throughout our food supply. Start reading labels and you'll see for yourself how often they are used. Some sources may surprise you. For example, pickles are usually dyed with yellow and blue dyes to make them look greener. Salad dressings may contain artificial colors. Some brands of white marshmallows have added dyes to make them look whiter!

Artificial colors are also found in many other consumable products. For example, most toothpaste for children contains artificial colors and flavors. Most mouthwash contains artificial colors and flavors. Vitamins for children are also colored and flavored. Most shampoos for children have dyes. These can be absorbed through the skin. Besides, what child doesn't enjoy splashing in the water and inevitably drinking some!

Over-the-counter medications--especially those for children--are usually artificially colored and flavored. These include cough lozenges and syrup, decongestants, and pain meds such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

Prescription medications are usually in colored and flavored syrups, tablets, or capsules. Here the artificial colors play an important role to help patients describe to their doctors how a drug looks, if they don't remember the name.

If your child needs an over-the-counter medication, you can usually find a white adult-sized tablet that can be broken into pieces appropriate for children. If your doctor gives you a prescription for a colored medication ask her if there is a white pill instead.

In putting together our articles for Clinical Pediatrics about the amounts of food dyes that were found in servings of common beverages and foods eaten by children, we were struck by how much sugar was in these products and how few important nutrients.

So even if the artificial food colors and flavors are removed from these products, they will still contain lots of sugar, white flour, and/ or saturated fats.

Instead, in planning your family's meals, emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy products if tolerated, lean meats, poultry, and cold water fish, unprocessed nuts and seeds, and beans. Avoid all artificial colors (flavors and preservatives). As Eugene Arnold, M.D., a distinguished professor emeritus at Ohio State Medical School, has pointed out, we don't need to make foods more attractive to children. After all we have a serious epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States!

By Laura J. Stevens MS

Laura Stevens, M.S. is a research associate in the Department of Nutrition Science at Purdue University. She and her colleagues have studied and published reports about the role essential fatty acids play in a subgroup of children with ADHD. More recently Stevens and her colleagues have measured the amounts of artificial food dyes in beverages and foods consumed by children.
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Author:Stevens, Laura J.
Publication:Pediatrics for Parents
Date:May 1, 2014
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