Food Dyes: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

What’s really in your food? That carrot cake—did it really contain carrots? Is that fruit punch made from fruit?

The answers are revealing, and kind of scary. Fruit punch is actually made from water, high fructose corn syrup, and Red 40. While this might not be shocking, other ingredient lists are. Betty Crocker’s carrot cake mix contains dye, imitation carrot bits made from seven different ingredients (corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, Red 40, Yellow 6, flour, corn cereal, an unspecified artificial color—oh, and carrot powder), and not a whiff of anything recognizable as a carrot. Even pickles contain Yellow 6 to make them look more appetizing.

Feel like you’ve been lied to? You’re not the only one. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, three-fourths of Americans feel that foods that are made largely with artificial coloringsmeant to imitate fruit or vegetable content, or any other content for that matter, should bear labels that make that obvious. We shouldn’t have to read the teeny little label on the back to know that Tropicana’s Twister Cherry Berry Blast doesn’t contain cherries or berries.

Interestingly, the United States is behind the rest of the developed world in this area. Use of artificial colorings is being discontinued in Great Britain and the European Union. For example, in the US, Nutri-Grain strawberry cereal bars contain Red no. 40, Yellow no. 6, and Blue no. 1. In Great Britain, they contain Beetroot red, Annatto, Paprika, and extract, all natural colorings.

The concerns go beyond simply being deceptive. After all, we can read labels. We can find websites that point out which foods contain dyes. We can choose to be educated. Even if the variety of processed foods we eat decreases, we can still eat raw fruits and vegetables, and it certainly won’t hurt our health any to do this. However, even if we are educated and make personal choices to avoid the dyes, the greater concern is that the dyes are not safe.

Lab tests have shown that dyes may cause cancer in animals. This hasn’t been confirmed in humans since at this point there is probably no effective way to test this. Most Americans consume lots of the dyes, and there are other lifestyle factors that contribute to cancer. Besides, you can’t ethically bring people into a lab and inject them with Red 40, then sit back and see if they develop cancer.

The strongest concern at this time is allergic reactions. Kids are often allergic to Red 40. We all knew the kid who couldn’t have Koolaid at summer camp. Even that watered down stuff made them sick. (I always thought they were just wimps. I feel bad about that now. I know better.) Blue 1, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 have also caused reactions.

Another concern is hyperactivity in children. While hyperactivity certainly isn’t lethal, it’s problematic for children who are expected to sit still in school. It’s also hard for parents, teachers, and caregivers, especially if you know your child doesn’t normally act hyper. It raises the question of whether the supposed “sugar high” is actually more of a “Red 40 high,” and if the prevalence of kids diagnosed with ADHD might have something to do with the dyes as well.

All of this calls into question the ethics of food companies putting artificial dyes into foods at all. Why do they do it? The obvious answer is attractiveness. They want food to be appealing to consumers, which is reasonable. I want my food to be appealing too. Dyes allow foods that normally wouldn’t be appealing to be attractive. Multicolored sugary cereals are attractive to children. Carrot cake that’s actually orange is more appealing, and white bread colored with dye to make it look like whole wheat makes us feel that we’re eating a healthier food, when in fact we’re not.

Consumers need to educate themselves. It’s probably impossible to stop consuming dyes altogether. Even farm-raised salmon is given dye to make it pink like its wild relative. However, we can certainly eat less. And we can do as the Center for Science in the Public Interest has done and express our concerns to organizations like the FDA and the USDA.

Tell them you’re concerned about your children’s health and your own, that you won’t buy products that contain large amounts of dye, and that you are educating others about this issue. If Great Britain and the European Union have done something, it’s not impossible for the US to do something too.

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