Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Color My World

I don’t know about your house, but at our house Halloween is already beginning to take shape. Costume ideas and potential target neighborhoods are being considered. Living where we do, there is no “neighborhood”, so my kids must attach themselves to friends who live in developments for the festivities. In our town, Halloween is being celebrated on Saturday October 30, because the 31rst falls on a Sunday this year. I believe there are religious reasons behind this decision, but I’m certain the local school system is overjoyed with this move since that gives the kids an entire day to process the candy that will overload their systems.

I try to run an organic ship here, but on Halloween all bets are off. My past attempts at “organic” candy and treats have all been met with eye rolls and annoyance, so this year I’m quietly planning on making some chocolate covered popcorn and leave it at that. Lucky for us and, if my children are to believed, the local kids, because our house sits too far from the road and civilization for anyone to ever knock on our door on Halloween. Just in case your house is one that gets many visits from tiny ghosts and goblins on that fateful night, here’s some food for thought.

Children love bright colors. Every year there are thousands of new, exciting brightly colored candy and food marketed to our children. And they eat it up, literally. Food dyes are one of the most common ingredients in candy and processed food. Synthetic food dyes don’t add a scrap of nutrients, but they do entice us, and our children, to eat. Synthetic food dyes counter the natural color loss that occurs in processed food when it is exposed to high temperature, light, moisture, air, and, lengthy storage. There’s a reason a cheese curl is just as brightly orange at age 18 months as is was at age one week (and probably will still be at age 100!). Manufacturers even inject orange skins with dyes to make them brighter so we buy them. Pretty much any processed food you pick up is loaded with synthetic dyes which are petroleum based.

But really, what’s so bad about a little food coloring? Well, here’s what a recent news report had to say –

“…an analysis of 21 of the most conclusive studies found compelling evidence that, indeed, artificial dyes could contribute to hyperactivity, restlessness, and attention problems in some children – particularly those with ADHD. What's more, the studies suggested that removing dyes from those children's diet was a quarter to half as effective in reducing those symptoms as giving the kids Ritalin or other stimulants. In other words, certain kids with ADHD might not need drugs if the artificial dyes were removed from their diets.”

Just three dyes – Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 – account for 90% of the dyes used. The Center for Science in the Public Interest evaluated studies and reports from countless scientists, Universities, and labs and here are the “Health Endpoints of Concern” that they listed for those three -

  • Hyperactivity – Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6
  • Compulsive aggression/violent behavior – Yellow 5
  • Eczema, hives – Yellow 5 and Yellow 6
  • Asthma – Yellow 5
  • Irritability – Yellow 5
  • Sleep disturbances/insomnia – Yellow 5
  • DNA damage in gastrointestinal organs, colon and urinary bladder in mice – Yellow 5, Red 40
  • Reduces serum and saliva zinc levels (increased susceptibility to infection and impaired cell-mediated immunity) – Yellow 5

 If you want more information, read the entire report at http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/food-dyes-rainbow-of-risks.pdf .

The FDA is charged with protecting consumers from dangerous foods, and as such they have approved only 9 synthetic food dyes for human consumption (Yellow 5 & 6 and Red 40 amongst them). Realizing that there is no nutritional value to food dyes, the FDA is pretty rigid in their testing. Kudos to them. There’s just a few problems with their tests – 1) most of the studies were commissioned and paid for by the dye manufacturers and 2) most of the studies lasted no longer than 2 years. Plus, none of the studies tested the interaction of multiple dyes.

Still, the FDA has established legal limits for cancer-causing contaminants in dyes and FDA chemists test each batch of dye to confirm that the tolerances aren’t exceeded. That should help you sleep at night, right? Not me. The FDA’s process has all kinds of kinks. The tolerances were based on 1990 dye usage and I’m sure you’ve said to your kids plenty of times – “They never had that when I was a kid!” Because they didn’t. The number of products and foods that use food dyes has increased five-fold. It may have been harmless to eat one product with a teeny bit of food dye in it, but what happens when you eat twenty products with just a teeny bit in them? We are eating at least five times as much dye-riddled food as we did in 1990 when the levels were established.

In addition, the FDA has not considered the fact that children ingest even more of these dyes and their bodies are much more sensitive to carcinogens and consume more dyes per pound of body weight as adults. Bottom line - The FDA needs to consider the cumulative risks of synthetic dyes and they don’t.

The European Union and the British Government have both taken steps to eliminate synthetic dyes from their food supplies asking manufacturers to voluntarily remove dyes from their products before they begin this year to require a warning label on all foods that contain dyes that says “may have an adverse effect on the activity and attention in children”. This is because studies have overwhelmingly shown that synthetic food dyes do increase hyperactivity and attention issues in children, particularly those who have ADHD. Just what we all need – more hyper kids!

Here’s what pisses me off, though – some products made by McDonald’s, Mars, Kraft, PepsiCo and other big names have already removed the dyes from their products in the United Kingdom, but continue to use synthetic dyes in the US. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the FDA to ban all the widely-used food dyes because of their impact on children’s behavior. Sadly, if history is to be our guide, our children's health doesn't stand a chance again big business lobbyists.

So why don’t all manufacturers switch to natural food colorings (like beta-carotene, paprika, beet juice, and turmeric)? At least in the US, they don’t have to and synthetic dyes are cheaper, more stable, and brighter than most natural colorings. Besides, no one’s demanding that they switch. At least for now, but the public push for more natural products may finally send them in that direction. Pigments from natural sources are exempt from FDA certification.

As I considered all this information I couldn’t help but connect a couple dots – when I was a kid it was rare to hear about a child being diagnosed with ADHD, but these days it’s rare to find a family without at least one. Our children have been raised on “fun foods” like lunchables (full of synthetic dyes in the US, but not in Europe!), colorful candies, and even cheese curls that make your mouth change color. Studies seem to prove time and again that sugar doesn’t make kids hyper, but what about sugar loaded with synthetic food dyes? Just a little colorful food for thought.

So, what’s a parent to do? You don’t want to be the house where they give out raisins! I’d suggest you start doing your research and reading labels and getting creative. There must be some products out there without the dyes – start looking. The FDA does require that they be listed in the ingredients.

As for the rest of the year, you know what I’m going to say – don’t eat processed foods! Eat whole foods which are better for you and you’ll avoid the whole toxic mess. Maybe you can’t cut processed foods out completely, but you can cut them back and you can look for healthier alternatives. There are lots of companies out there getting on the “all natural” bandwagon. Read labels and make smart decisions. The simpler the food, the less likely it has dangerous additives. Just about everything you buy at Trader Joes is free of synthetic dyes.

By choosing to purchase foods without synthetic dyes you can vote with your pocket book. You can help send a message to the companies that are willing to compromise your children’s (and your) health for their bottom line.


 And if you want to do more, send your congressman a note and tell him you expect him to pressure the FDA to ban the use of synthetic dyes in foods in the US.


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