In the weeks since the FDA passed the buck on artificial food dyes, there’s been a lot of talk about the studies. Studies that elicit dismissive words like “inconclusive” and “inconsistent.” Or my favorite: “urban legends.”
The FDA’s advisory panel, while weighing warning labels for foods containing fake dyes, did acknowledge ill effects in some kids with behavioral problems, and called for more research. But the panel wasn’t convinced of dangers for the general population. (Not enough, anyway. The vote was 8 to 6.) So no labels. “If we put a label that long on every chemical and ingredient that hasn’t been adequately studied,” epidemiologist Tim Jones told the Washington Post, “you wouldn’t see the package anymore.”
Hold up. So the people making the rules (or advising the people who make the rules) won’t OK warning labels, because the dye-behavior research is inconclusive. Yet they’ll allow food ingredients where the research is… inconclusive.
How do I even begin to deconstruct that irony?
I know. Let’s just forget the concept of warning labels. Instead: Don’t allow anything that “hasn’t been adequately studied” to be put in food or called food in the first place.
This radical idea has a name. It’s called the precautionary principle, and it’s the idea that if something could harm the public or the environment — especially in the absence of significant benefit — you don’t do it. If there are doubts, even if there’s no scientific consensus, the burden shifts from proving harm to proving safety.
Here’s how that would apply to food dyes: Instead of requiring scientists, parents and consumer advocates to prove that petrochemical dyes cause health and behavioral issues, the precautionary principle would require dye makers, food manufacturers and regulatory agencies to prove that these colors don’t cause health and behavioral issues.
The thing is, this isn’t some fantasy ethical theory. It’s actually in use, not only in other countries, but also, to a limited degree, in the United States. And has been for at least 20 years. The precautionary principle underlies U.S. acts governing workplace safety and endangered species, for instance (though it’s debatable how seriously it’s applied). It’s the reason some European countries have banned genetically modified crops and/or require labels on foods made with GMOs.
And when the U.K. Food Standards Agency encouraged parents and manufacturers to avoid food dyes, and the European Parliament mandated dye warning labels, the message was clear: Rather than risk children’s health, let’s be responsible and take precautions while we figure it out. And wouldn’t you know it? Several huge U.S. food manufacturers swapped petrochemical dyes for natural dyes in products they sell overseas (in some cases dropping preservatives and artificial sweeteners, too). But here at home they’ve continued peddling the same chemical junk.
So of course the food industry cheered the FDA’s non-decision last month. It’s all about personal responsibility, food makers say. Artificial colors are listed right there on the label, they point out. But that’s lame. Consumers need to be responsible, yes, but food manufacturers also need to own up to the potential dangers and stop obfuscating with goofy justifications.
Like this, from a recent New York Times story:
“Color is such a crucial part of the eating experience that banning dyes would take much of the pleasure out of life,” said Kantha Shelke, a food chemist and spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists. “Would we really want to ban everything when only a small percentage of us are sensitive?”
Indeed, color often defines flavor in taste tests. When tasteless yellow coloring is added to vanilla pudding, consumers say it tastes like banana or lemon pudding. And when mango or lemon flavoring is added to white pudding, most consumers say that it tastes like vanilla pudding. Color creates a psychological expectation for a certain flavor that is often impossible to dislodge, Dr. Shelke said.
“Color can actually override the other parts of the eating experience,” she said.
Seriously? Banning food dyes would “take much of the pleasure out of life”? And do we want to think food tastes like banana or vanilla? Or do we want it to actually taste like banana or vanilla?
Then there’s this explanation from the benign-sounding but industry-funded International Food Information Council Foundation:
Color additives are used in foods for many reasons: 1) to offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions; 2) to correct natural variations in color; 3) to enhance colors that occur naturally; and 4) to provide color to colorless and “fun” foods. Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green. Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.
The IFIC gets points for honesty. Though I get the impression that nobody over there sees the problem with “color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions.” (Um, ick.) And, really, let’s just drop the ruse and drink water, use butter and eat minty white ice cream instead.
But here’s the thing. Just because the FDA did nothing, just because the food industry is big and rich and apparently shameless, that doesn’t mean the rest of us are powerless. The choices we make, the voices we raise — it all matters:
Know what you’re eating
First and foremost: read ingredients. Artificial colors are listed by color and number (see the image below). For more detail on food dyes and other additives, use smartphone apps like those from Fooducate and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It seems overwhelming, I know, because food dyes are in even natural-looking foods, like pickles and tortilla chips. But you can avoid them. Really, you can. We do. And I know lots of other people who do, too. A bonus: Ditching artificial colors will automatically improve your diet, since they’re a hallmark of low-quality foods.
Tell companies you’re not buying it
Write to food manufacturers and sign petitions, like this one asking Kraft Foods to stop using petrochemical dyes here just as it’s done overseas. If you have certain brands you favor, find the consumer contact information on their websites and tell the companies how you feel.
Report your personal experiences
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the main group that lobbied for the FDA hearings, collects stories from parents whose children have had adverse reactions to food dyes. For some kids, the effects are devastatingly obvious. But even kids who aren’t hard-wired can react. I’d even argue that’s the case for most kids, on some level, whether parents realize it’s happening or not. Think about how many times you’ve been at a birthday party with junky cake and seen the ramp-up, the fidgets, distractedness. It’s not sugar that causes the crazies. It’s food dye and other additives. And even if your kid is unfazed, watch how the jacked-up kids change the group dynamic. Then imagine what happens in school when kids bring Lunchables and colored yogurt and “fruit” gummies, sucking all the teacher’s attention because they can’t behave. That sort of thing? That counts as your personal experience, too.
Try to get your school on board
Easier said than done, I realize. Even in my daughter’s small, progressive school, we’ve gotten pushback while trying to discourage food dyes from shared foods (for parties and birthdays). But it’s worth a shot. Gather some background data on food dyes (a good place to start: past Spoonfed posts). Then take a look at these how-to guides from PEACHSF.org. Especially if you’re in a larger school or district, you’ll find great tips on how to approach your school and be an effective advocate. And if all you do is raise awareness or food IQ even a bit, well, that’s something.
Too often, consumer (especially parent) concerns are dismissed as emotional, driven by fear instead of fact. But the precautionary principle turns that criticism around:
What the precautionary principle says is that fear — in the form of caution — has its place. When there is real reason to be careful, when an activity raises threats of harm, act accordingly! That is common sense, not an absolute.
But the precautionary principle is not just against what we fear; it is laid down on the side of what we love. We proclaim in the precautionary principle that human health and the environment are worth protecting.
Amen to that. Our health is worth it. Our kids are worth it. (And a nod to Earth Day: So is the planet they’ll inherit.) Now let’s get this done.
Thoughts on caution, accountability, making choices, raising voices?
*Click here for more details on Tattfoo Tan’s Nature Matching System project.
Copyright protected by Digiprove © 2011 Christina Le Beau
That palette by Tan is beautiful! I’m dealing with stubbornness, not with children or the FDA, but with my BF’s mother. Just last weekend she brought whole boxes full of processed junk to our house (again)… including pop tarts, packaged snack crackers, M&Ms, sunny D, Easter candies, and even your favorite, Girl Scout cookies! Ugh… I piled it all into one corner of the cabinet trying not to get frustrated. I know she means well, but I’m tired of having these items around.
He doesn’t have the same qualms as I do about processed junk, so it’s an additional fight to either secretly dispose of it or give it away when he is not looking. Me urging him to read the labels doesn’t elicit the desired response either. “But it tastes good, so it can’t be that bad.” It has harmful dyes and preservatives, though!!
I feel pretty useless in the fight to change public perception of these food additives when I can’t even effect change in my own household. *sigh*
I recentally learned of these dyes and the effects on children. I have a son diagnosed with A.D.D., the focus portion. In two years we haven’t found a medication that works. After reserching the dye articles, we went cold turkey and wiped out certain chemicals and went organic. At first he did really well, but has becomes increasingly hyper. I was wondering if in your circle of friends you know of a Mom that has had experience with food dye sensitivities and ADD that I could get some advice from. His doctor only wants to change his dose. If you know of anyone I would love to pick their brain to try to solve his issue. If not, no big deal, just wanted to reach out just in case. Thanks!
melissa – post your ? on my FB wall (Christina may have you do the same). I will put an APB out to FwKA fans to see what experience others have. My experience has been that for kids who react, when they come off dyes they are better, but subsequent exposures are more pronounced. it becomes important to strictly adhere to a no exceptions policy when it comes to additives and kids with ADD. that means you have to notify the school, teachers, relatives, church, anyone that offers food to your child, that they absolutely can not have dyes. most people don’t realize that dyes are in a large % of processed foods.
keep it up, I know it’s hard but what you are doing is helping your son.
the other possibility is that your son is reactive to something else in his diet in addition to chemical additives. i’ve read studies that indicate ADHD/ ADD kids often have food allergies/intolerances to dairy, gluten and other reactive foods.
Jenna, thanks. I didn’t see your post until today. Tomorrow we are going to try a Lactose free milk to see how that works. Then a gluten/wheat test. We did take him off his medicine on Saturday and put him on Focus for children and a DHA Fish Oil supplement. The first day was rough, but the rest have been pretty good. I have not told his teacher, I just wanted to see what she said and I haven’t heard anything from her yet. He is a different kid at home, it has been so much better, but we had a bad night tonight. I am going to start again keeping a food diary tomorrow to monitor the reactions. His teacher has pretty good about respecting snacks, but family and church looks at us like we are crazy when we tell them absolutely nothing but what we bring. 🙂 I also picked up a book on ADD and their diet. That has been most helpful giving specifics about what foods and combinations of foods kids should and shouldn’t eat. Thanks again Jenna.
Melissa, Jenna is right about subsequent dye exposures being potentially more severe. So it could be that because your son has been mostly off these chemicals, he’s having stronger reactions to even small amounts of dye. It’s also true that many of these kids have problems with dairy, gluten, etc. I personally know a family whose little girl had serious behavioral issues until she was diagnosed with sensitivities to both food dyes and dairy. If you’d like to e-mail me — christina [at] spoonfedblog [dot] net — I can put you in touch.
Have you looked into the Feingold Association? That would be a good resource for you, as well.
And yes, definitely feel free to post this question on the Spoonfed Facebook page and Jenna’s Food with Kid Appeal Facebook page. Thanks, Jenna, for that idea. I’m still getting used to the fact that Spoonfed has a Facebook page.
Thanks Christina, yes the Feingold was where I started this whole process!! I will consult with your friend and if I need further help, I will be sure to post on your blog or FB page. Thanks so much for your help!
Melissa, Have you looked at the feingold diet? Feingold.org In addition to eliminating artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, it also limits high sal fruits and vegetables. After six weeks many families can add the high sal stuff back in; but some, like me, never do. For instance, grapes make my son extremly hyper. (I would have never known if I hadn’t done FG.) Every child is different and sometimes it is like peeling back an onion, one layer at a time. But FG is way to get to the food/additives that are affecting your child.
Melissa I belong to a parent organization called Feingold, (www.feingold.org) and among the parents on the board there there is a phenomenon known as detox where sometimes it gets worse before it gets better after removing the chemicals. We do more than dyes, though we eliminate artificial dyes, flavors and preservatives. My son is on meds too but on the minimal dose and we may remove it over the summer. I know it is hard!
“Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green.”
There are so many things wrong with this statement. First of all, who would actually want to have cola and margarine? I can’t believe people still eat ‘fake butter’. And would quality mint ice cream taste ‘worse’ if it was white?? I made my own mint chocolate chip ice cream and it was fantastic without any dye whatsoever. Such a load of BS.
I have to laugh at that, I made key lime bars for a family gathering and my sister in law could not get over the fact that they were yellow not green. “All lime flavored things are bright green” she said. I asked her what color lime juice is…
Love this post. Seriously, you rock. Because I’m mired in the craziness of tiny kids right now and I have so little time to even THINK about this stuff but you keep reminding me and keeping me focused (or as focused as I’m capable of being at the moment). And I agree with the previous commenter that it’s SO hard when others keep giving stuff to your kids … just this morning my children opened up their Easter gifts from the grandparents full of VERY colorful candies and they are, of course, in heaven. (This time we did manage to edit the gifts ahead of time, because – does a 22 month old really *need* five large, elaborately decorated lollipops and a big plastic egg full of jellybeans?) This is the hard part – managing the flow of junk that comes in from other sources …
Bethesda, agreed: Gift-y type junk food is the worst. Which is why we’ve actually grown pretty ruthless about it over the years. We’ve been so vocal about our food choices that it’s rare for our families to give Tess crappy candy or snacks. (And, in fact, many of them purposely choose more wholesome treats.) But when it does happen, we just… toss it. (Not in front of the giver! Later.)
Also, Tess is pretty savvy about this stuff now, and (for the most part) will steer clear of things we don’t eat. Funny story: On Sunday, after opening a box of chocolate eggs from her Easter basket and seeing that they were pastel colors, she hesitated and raised her eyebrows at me. I had to explain that the Easter bunny brings only candy he knows we’ll eat. (And, apparently, shops at the Natural Candy Store.)
As I mentioned in a post about Halloween candy, we involve Tess in the conversations about what to keep and what to toss. Partly that’s because I view it as education about ingredients, and partly it’s because I don’t want this to be about deprivation or forbidden fruit. I want her to make conscious choices.
This weekend, for instance, I had her taste M&Ms from a relative side-by-side with SunDrops (M&M-like candies) from our Easter egg hunt. Aside from wanting her to avoid the artificial colors and other icky ingredients in M&Ms, I wanted her to realize that the natural alternative also tastes better. Because, really, taste is trump, and if kids get used to real food, that’s what they’ll favor.
Now, OK, I’m sure there are plenty of people who would say, holy cow, it’s an M&M. A microscopic M&M. Yeah, yeah, I know. But put that M&M in the larger context of our chemicalized-food world and it doesn’t seem so insignificant after all.
I went to Kraft Canada in Toronto last month, and asked the president about the food dyes that Kraft uses, specifically tartrazine in Kraft Dinner. He said that it is Kraft’s goal to phase out their use of all artificial dyes, flavors, and preservatives, but it has to been done slowly so that customers have time to get used to it. We can’t change Kraft Dinner over night, he said. People would be angry!
At first I wasn’t so sure, but then I tweeted something about Kraft taking out food dyes, and I had three tweets back within seconds from people saying that they LIKED the day-glo orange and how DARE the health food people touch their beloved Kraft Dinner. Yikes!
Now that being said, I don’t see why it has to be a long, drawn out process. Kraft could still take MSG out of the salad dressings, etc and I doubt people would notice. They’ve changed things in other countries, they could surely do it here. On the other hand, Nestle changed smarties to ‘natural’ dyes and it changed the taste-so much that my family refuses to eat them now.
I have a kid who is sensitive to red food dye, in that it doesn’t make him hyper, but it makes him violently ill. That’s sort of hard to ignore or explain away, especially when he’s vomiting everywhere. I didn’t realize it was the food dye until he was older, but he tended to naturally stay away from anything dyed red because it upset his tummy. Now, we generally stay away from processed food as a family, which really cuts down on the dyes.
I loved this post but I would like to point something out- I think one has to be careful about generalizing that the hyper child in the classroom is one jacked up on food dyes and preservatives. I’ve worked in classrooms for 20 years, and in general the more ‘active’ kids are little boys who a) are having trouble fitting in with a class which is run in a more ‘traditional’ manner b) are in the younger group of kids and need more time to mature c) have a very ‘free’ home life (little discipline) d) have some type of learning/emotional issue. They may have processed lunches, or may not. They may have ADHD, or may not. My own child had difficulty and people constantly criticized everything from what he ate to our parenting, and it turns out that his classroom difficulty was caused by a serious motor disability and sensory integration difficulties. (his ability to write is in the bottom half of the 1st percentile. Intelligence? 99th percentile) Now-diet WAS important because he would be even more ‘off’ if I had sent him junk every day, but even though I was very careful not to, the classes were so NOT geared to his needs that he was completely off anyway. It wasn’t until people recognized his disability and changed the environment/adapted the assignments that he could calm down and focus.
In your case of the birthday party…the kids MAY be jacked up on the junky cake and food dye/sugar laden food there, or in the case of some kids I know, it could be anxiety, and overstimulation. I’m not saying that you are wrong, but I think people in general need to be careful not to place a “THIS is what it is” stamp on kids’ behavior. It’s not always the case. My kid would’ve been the one running around screaming, and it wouldn’t have been the dye or the sugar, but rather the fact that he was WAY over-stimulated. Kevin in general was a very intense child, even without all the junk. (actually we avoided birthday parties. He hated them for that reason) If I had a nickle for every time someone asked me if he had ADHD…… (GAH).
Great post, as always! And you know I love you. 🙂
Scatteredmom, it’s so true that there’s no one reason for behavior of any kind. And my own daughter has done the anxiety-overstimulation ramp-up on occasion. I just think it’s important that parents (and schools) consider the possibility that behavioral problems are food-related, because way too often that’s overlooked or trivialized. (As is kids’ lack of sleep. But that’s a whole other post.)
Interesting about the Smarties, because I just checked the ingredients online, and they still contain artificial colors. Do you know whether that was a temporary change? Or maybe just in Canada? Odd.
As for Kraft, well, yes, there will always be people who accuse the “health food people” of infringing on their rights. And Kraft no doubt is worried about losing some of those people as customers. But, in the end, the company would gain more customers than it would lose, I’d think. Plus it would be acting consistently with what it’s done elsewhere. And, oh yeah, it would be doing the right thing.
(BTW, nice to see you back here!)
While on hand it would be nice for the FDA to recognize they cause issues, my hope is that the companies start doing it themselves as people get more educated and change. My bigger issue with the government is honest labeling of products.
As far as behavior being linked to several things, diet is not the only factor by a long stretch but it sure does help us out tremendously and safe a ton of problems. We also have used medication, counseling, and discipline changes at home.
Orthorexics: Those affected may start by eliminating processed foods, anything with artificial colorings or flavorings as well as foods that have come into contact with pesticides. Beyond that, orthorexics may also shun caffeine, alcohol, sugar, salt, wheat and dairy foods. Some limit themselves to raw foods.
Anonymous: Sorry it took so long to approve your comment. I was busy drinking coffee, eating cheese and crackers, and munching on a chocolate Easter bunny. Oh, and chilling a nice bottle of Riesling for later.
Whether orthorexia is a true disorder is up for debate. But, if it is, it’s debilitating for the people who let food dictate their lives to the point that it affects their relationships, daily functioning and health. And those people deserve our empathy. Because food is not the issue — it’s fear and loss of control. Just like with any eating disorder.
For the rest of us, though? The ones who just care about what we put in our bodies and how we treat the planet? Yeah, we’re good. But thanks for your concern.
Oh, and if you’d like to comment again, be a big girl (or boy?) and own it, ‘K? You know: real name, real e-mail address. Then we might be able to have a real conversation. Thanks.
The difference between orthorexia and avoiding food dyes is like the difference between anorexia and eating potato chips only once a week. One is a disorder, the other is sensible behavior.
I eat potato chips once a week, too. 🙂
LOL! Good response!
I’m standing here applauding. What an excellent post! I will try to find a way to link back to it from my blog shortly. Are you going to participate in the Blogathon? I sure hope so!
Thanks, Alexandra, but I’m afraid daily posts are not my thing. So no Blogathon for me.
Oh yes! Way to sock it to ’em! What’s up with the accusation and then ‘anonymous’. Grow a pair!
You go girl. This post is really well written, convincing, and important. Can you PLEASE turn it into an op-ed for the New York Times?! My friend’s healthy (seeming) twenty-something son was just diagnosed with cancer. Another friend takes bright pink thyroid meds (colored with? You guessed it, food dye). We know these are pretty poisons, not food. We see the ill effects all around us. But American industry spends so much money and lobbies so effectively that we side with money instead of health, children, and the environment, almost every time.
To think that ingesting a petroleum product will not cause adverse reaction over time is ridiculous. Anyone would be hard pressed to find a regular food on the market that does not contain some sort of food dye. It is in everything we eat. It is said that an average human being eats about 11 pounds of toxic chemicals each year and we wonder why ADD, ADHD, Bipolar and Cancer are growing at an alarming rate. There is absolutely no reason to add a petroleum product (food coloring) to anything we eat. The only reason the manufacturers do it is strictly marketing related. They have performed studies that show the human brain perceives bright colors like we see in nature, apples, grapes, oranges, tomatoes as good for our bodies. Therefore if they add color to it and make it brighter, human instinct kicks in and our brains crave it. In reality we are slowly killing ourselves and our children.
I absolutely hate when I read articles that state there are no studies that show food coloring is harmful. That is just the FDA’s way of saying the lobbyist have more power than you do. I have a child that began to act out with aggression and behaviors that were not natural, nor logical. We struggled for years as he was kicked out of daycare after daycare. As a last resort we took him to a doctor who diagnosed him as bipolar and put him on medication. We hated this but at the time; it was all we could do. We did not want him to hurt himself or anyone else. At one point he jumped out of a car at stoplight on a busy street because we passed a toy store and he was mad that we did not go there. After he was placed on medication, his issues lessened but did not go away completely. After about a year on the medication, he went through about a three week period where he slid back into the uncontrollable personality that he had been before the medication. I began to look at what had changed. I realized that a family member had given us a case of the little orange cheese crackers and a case of a well known ranch flavored potato chips (I don’t want to mention names). Our kids at these standard US snacks at the rate of about 5 or six packages a day during those three weeks. I began to put two and two together and realized the common denominator was food coloring. We removed all foods with artificial food coloring, which by the way was not as easy as it sounds, and within a few days our child was calmed, sweet, and caring again. The few times he had a meltdown was directly related to a food with dye in it. One time we could not figure out why he was acting out, all he had was pizza. Then I found out there is yellow dye in pizza crust. Why you might ask? So it looks pretty and your brain tells you it is healthy food. At this point we have backed his medication down to the lowest dosage and over the summer we plan to completely take him off the medication. Without food dye in his system we have seen an amazing turn around in his personality. It is like night and day. If he get any food dye we see aggression within about thirty to forty minutes after he ate the food coloring. I wish the FDA would call me. I could shoe them in just a few sessions what type of affect this has on our child.
I find it amazing as I look around and kids are cramming cupcakes with bright blue frosting in their mouths at alarming rates, while the parents stand there and say, “I don’t know why little Johnny is ADD. Where did I go wrong?” … Really? I challenge you to walk in your local convenience store and find an item without artificial dye and by the why “Carmel coloring” found in many products is not natural either, it just sounds like it is.
Wake up America! The FDA has to quite playing the lobbyist money game while our children are the pawns.
Join us on FaceBook to ban food coloring today! http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/home.php?sk=group_212701462084640