St. Patrick’s Day was last weekend, and seeing all those green cupcakes and cookies everywhere made me think about food dye. I’ve heard vague rumblings about food dye being unhealthy, and there are even grocery store chains that won’t sell food with artificial dyes. But are they actually bad for you?
It’s a tricky question, because on the one hand, artificial coloring is, well, artificial. On the other hand, artificial coloring have been around for over eighty years—Americans eat over 100 million pounds of the dye Brilliant Blue every year without incident.The natural dye carmine, however, can cause a severe allergic reaction in some individuals. So just because a dye is natural, doesn’t mean it’s better for you. It’s all a bit tricky.
While poking around the Internet, I found one study in particular that seems to be the most widely cited: “Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial.” In this British survey from 2007, children were given two kinds of drinks with a different mix of artificial dyes and preservatives. The survey concluded that “[a]rtificial colours or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the general population.”
The FDA has taken quite a critical look at this study, however, saying:
"...one particular procedural weakness relevant to regulatory application was the use of chemical mixtures as challenge materials which basically precludes identifying which specific compound(s) within the mixtures might be responsible for any treatment related effects. Consequently, there would be little, if any, utility of these findings to assess risk or to support regulatory decisions for specific compounds.”
In other words, when you don’t test chemicals individually, you get really muddy results. Who knows if it’s the just the preservatives that’s making the children hyperactive, or just the red dye, etc?
The FDA more explicitly sums up its reaction to the survey on the FAQs on its website:
Both the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority independently reviewed the results from this study and each has concluded that the study does not substantiate a link between the color additives that were tested and behavioral effects.
So I suppose that’s the last word from the FDA about that.
I guess what you really have to do is look at each dye individually—each dye is chemically unique, and one chemical may have a different effect on a person than a different one will. This is the main problem that tripped up the 2007 British study—the whole study was basically deemed invalid since they didn’t test the food dyes separately.
I’m going to take a closer look at specific food dyes over the next few weeks, starting with Brilliant Blue. Check back next week to see what I’ve dug up!