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Synthetic Food Colors: Banned in Europe, But We'll Eat Anything!

food dyesHow come we’re so often behind the times when it comes to protecting our health and safety? Shouldn’t we be leading the pack? Shouldn’t we be demanding safer, healthier, more natural food?

I don’t know why it shocks me to learn, for example, that Kellogg’s uses all natural beet root red, annatto and paprika to color their strawberry Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars sold in U.K. and the cheaper, synthetic Red No. 40, Yellow No. 6 and Blue No. 1 to color the same product sold in the U.S. I mean, didn’t I learn anything after all that Bisphenol-A fuss?

Though I’m not satisfied with “better late than never,” there is a bit of good news. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has scheduled a March hearing on food dyes. The FDA is finally taking a closer look at whether they dyes adversely impact children’s health as the result of a request from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). CSPI has asked the FDA to ban synthetic food dyes, as they do in Europe, and to put a warning on colored products until a ban is in place.

Think you don’t need a warning label? Foods with dyes are obvious, right? No so much. As the brilliant Mrs. Q, an undercover teacher who blogged about eating school lunch everyday for the first semester of this school year, has pointed out on her blog Fed Up With School Lunch, food dyes can be found in unexpected places including seemingly healthy snacks like trail mix.

The consensus among those who’ve been invited to the meeting in March is that the research claiming a causal connection between synthetic food dyes and behavioral problems is insufficient, but there is enough evidence to warrant a closer look with more research. They have also outright disagreed with the FDA’s stance up to this point that there is “no information to suggest that the behavioral changes noted [in a 2007 landmark study of synthetic food dyes at the University of Southampton] were adverse, detrimental or maladaptive.” To the contrary, the participants believe that the evidence may be sufficient to warrant action.

I must admit that I’m lost on why there would even be a debate. Why wouldn’t we be for removing synthetic ingredients from our food? If they do no harm, no harm is done by removing them but, if they are bad for us and our kids, then removing them makes food healthier. We’re talking about artificial ingredients used solely to make food look more appealing, more natural, more fun. Because, really, what’s the point in eating food that isn’t wacky fun?

Aside from the cost to the manufacturer, moving towards all natural ingredients, which is possible even in packaged foods, is a good thing. Maybe my lack of understanding micro (or is it macro?) economics is a handicap here, but all natural packaged food is still an affordable option in countries with stricter health and food safety guidelines. Am I missing something?

Seems I’m not. According to a story in the Chicago Tribune last Sunday, “Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have pledged not to sell products with synthetic food colors. Starbucks doesn’t permit dyes in its beverages or pastries, Necco has switched to safer natural colorings for its wafers and Frito-Lay is testing dye-free snack foods.” And keep in mind that the dyes in question here are already banned in Europe.

So it is possible. Then what’s taking so long?!

What do you think? Is the research enough to make you demand stricter guidelines—or even a ban—on food dyes? Or is that just an overreaction?

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