In 1971, a 12-year old boy in Baltimore was admitted to the hospital after reportedly passing some loose stools that looked “like strawberry ice cream.” The young patient wasn’t suffering from abdominal cramping, but his doctors suspected he might have been suffering from internal bleeding, they wrote in a case study published in Pediatrics. After two days in the hospital, he was back to normal. At least he was back to normal until he started his old breakfast routine—a bowl of Franken Berry breakfast cereal. Then, it looked as if he were bleeding again.
No, this not an urban legend. But it's a case where artificial food coloring had unintended consequences. And something similar could be happening again—on a much larger scale, in ways that scientists are finding much less discernible.
Only now, there’s hundreds of thousands of gallons of artificial food dyes—particularly Red No. 40—being added to Froot Loops, Bomb Pops, and Big Red chewing gum. Food dyes are added to grapefruit juice, granola bars, and breakfast cereals. Children eat an estimated five times as many food dyes annually as they did fifty years ago. So while case studies about strawberry-colored poop haven’t been showing up in medical literature, researchers suggest the rising tide of food coloring may contribute to another problem: more hyperactive behavior in more children.
Because many artificial colors used in foods are azo compounds that resemble pharmaceutical drugs, these food additives can affect health and behavior. David Schab, a Columbia University psychiatrist, says they disproportionately affect hyperactive children. “The size of the bad effect of these dyes on behavior is about half to one-third the size of the good effect of Ritalin.”
Consequently, the European Parliament requires a warning label for foods with artificial food coloring: Consumption may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children. The European ruling followed a 2009 University of Southampton report, which found an increase in hyperactivity in children who consumed various mixtures of seven different artificial colors and the preservative sodium benzoate. While the report provided a link between synthetic food dyes and behavioral problems—one observed by researchers and not just parents—it did not pinpoint a single synthetic color.
The United States could follow Europe’s lead with a warning label, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will be holding an advisory hearing on behavior and artificial food dyes this week. But, in a draft memo (PDF), the FDA says research doesn't show a clear, conclusive link between a specific food additive and a particular behavior.
[F]or certain susceptible children with ADHD and other problem behaviors, the data suggest that their condition may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, artificial food colors.
This probably means food manufacturers will continue to do what they’ve been doing. A Mars/Wrigley spokeswoman told me, "Any decisions regarding reformulation or labeling would be based on sound scientific support and regulatory guidance." And no action by the FDA would follow a familiar regulatory trope, where the need for rigorous scientific research trumps the clamor for a precautionary response.
Should the FDA find conclusive evidence, food makers here may eventually shy away from artificial food colorings in favor of annatto, turmeric, red cabbage, algae, and 20 other natural colorants, as some companies are already doing. But "natural" dyes are not necessarily a panacea. For example, at high doses, annatto can also be used as a drug. And, earlier this year, the FDA quietly issued new labeling requirements for carmine, another reddish coloring extracted from fertile female cochineals that feed on cacti (the namesake arthropod in that brightly-colored “bug juice”) to alert those with allergies and to give a heads-up to vegans who don’t want to be eating bugs, even if they’re “natural.”
Still, health advocates say that even if there is little harm in the actual, chemical substance of something like Red No. 40, artificial dyes present a “rainbow of risks.” Because it’s high-calorie, refined foods and not apples that require a little pigmentation pick-me-up, says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest:
Companies use food coloring to simulate the presence of a fruit or a vegetable. To be honest, they’re used to cheat people—to mislead consumers. It’s cheaper to use these than the real thing.
Food colorings have been used for thousands of years. It’s no secret that the colors of foods and food packaging are designed to elicit emotions—from comfort to alertness—that go beyond basic physiology. The problem is not that we're tricking our brains into intensifying aromas, flavors, or the appeal of a particular brand of orange juice. It's that colors that once signified healthy, safe food can also fool us into thinking that yellow margarine or orange pasteurized processed cheese product tastes richer and fattier. Or that a deeper hue of Kool-Aid indicates a more mature cherry flavor. The trick now is to remake food without making it colorless.
You can search for foods with added colors here.
Top chart shows the eight most common food dyes as a percentage of the total 15, 016,634 pounds certified by FDA in 2009. Bottom chart shows the pounds of each color certified by the FDA in 2009. Color palette via Sensient.