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Milton Stokes, M.P.H., R.D.
How Bad is Red 40 Or Other Synthetic Dyes?
Americans are now eating five times as much food dye as we did in 1955. That statistic isn't as surprising when you consider that since then food dyes have made more and more of our foods colorful -- from breakfast cereals to ice creams.
While natural colorants made from foods like beets are available, many manufacturers opt for synthetic dyes -- which may have dangerous health consequences, particularly for children, according to a recent report from the
This is why the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based consumer-watchdog group has asked the
The three most widely used culprits -- Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Red 40 -- contain compounds, including benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl, that research has linked with cancer.
Research has also associated food dyes with problems in children including allergies, hyperactivity, learning impairment, irritability and aggressiveness. A U.S. study published in Science found that when children who scored high on a scale measuring hyperactivity consumed a food-dye blend they performed worse on tests that measured their ability to recall images than when they drank a placebo.
A 2007 British study found that children who consumed a mixture of common synthetic dyes displayed hyperactive behavior within an hour of consumption. (These children had not been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.) The results, published in The Lancet, prompted Britain's
Preliminary evidence suggests that many children have a slight sensitivity to food dyes -- and a smaller percentage are very sensitive.
"We see reactions in sensitive individuals that include core ADHD symptoms, like difficulty sitting in a chair and interrupting conversations," says David Schab, M.D., M.P.H., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at
Even so, says Schab, this isn't the most compelling reason to give up food dyes. "Foods with dyes are often riddled with other nutritional problems, like excess calories and fat," says Schab, who points out that childhood obesity is a far greater public health concern.
Bottom Line: If you're concerned, ditch the potentially dangerous synthetic dyes. Look for foods bearing the green-and-white USDA certified organic label, but be aware that foods labeled "made with organic ingredients" may still contain synthetic dyes. You can also check product ingredient lists for beet, carotenes, annatto, capsanthin (a paprika extract) -- as all are natural colorants.
Counterintuitively, the terms "artificial color," "artificial color added" or "color added" also indicate that nature-derived pigments were used since synthetic dyes must be listed by their names.
Available at Amazon.com:
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder