Photo: annshi, Flickr
Bright-red soda, rainbow-hued kid's cereal, electric-yellow popsicles...most of us have eaten them. But unlike the public health uproar over salt and trans fats, there hasn't been much said about the dangers of food dyes. Fed up with consumer apathy, The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is calling for a complete government ban of food dyes. The advocacy group says the three most widely used dyes -- Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 -- contain cancer-causing substances. Another dye, Red 3, has actually been identified as a carcinogen by the FDA, but you can still find it on supermarket shelves.
"These synthetic chemicals do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods," says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit group. "[They] trigger behavior problems in children and, possibly, cancer in anybody."
Think you're immune to the problem because you don't gobble Fruit Loops in the morning? Think again. The dyes are in a staggering array of foods, from salad dressing to matzo balls. In fact, manufacturers put about 15 million pounds of eight synthetic dyes into the food supply each year, according to CSPI. Even scarier? Per capita consumption of dyes has risen five-fold since 1955. A lot of it has to do with the kinds of foods now marketed to children. The wilder the color, the more cash a product often brings in.
"Dyes add no benefits whatsoever to foods, other than making them more 'eye-catching' to increase sales," says James Huff, the associate director for chemical carcinogenesis at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences' National Toxicology Program. "CSPI's scientifically detailed report on possible health effects of food dyes raises many questions about their safety. Their continued use presents unnecessary risks to humans, especially young children."
But are the risks real? Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 have long been known to cause allergic reactions in some people. CSPI says that while those reactions are not common, they can be serious. Numerous studies have shown that dyes can cause hyperactivity in children.
But cancer is the biggest worry. In 1985, the acting commissioner of the FDA said that Red 3, one of the lesser-used dyes, "has clearly been shown to induce cancer" and was "of greatest public health concern." The dye was never banned, however, and according to the CSPI, manufacturers use about 200,000 pounds of Red 3 every year in foods like fruit leather and frozen meals marketed to children.
Tests of Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 showed signs of causing cancer in lab animals, according to CSPI. Yellow 5 also caused mutations, an indication of possible carcinogenicity.
In addition, according to the report, FDA tests show that the three most-widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are tainted with low levels of cancer-causing compounds, including benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl in Yellow 5.
Freaked out yet? Suddenly, Jacobson's request sounds reasonable: "The Food and Drug Administration should ban dyes, which would force industry to color foods with real food ingredients, not toxic petrochemicals." Not convinced? Eat those jellybeans at your own risk.