CSPI Says Food Dyes Pose Rainbow of Risks

Cancer, Hyperactivity, Allergic Reactions


WASHINGTON—Food dyes—used in everything from M&Ms to Manischewitz Matzo Balls to Kraft salad dressings—pose risks of cancer, hyperactivity in children, and allergies, and should be banned, according to a new report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. A top government scientist agrees, and says that food dyes present unnecessary risks to the public.

The three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are contaminated with known carcinogens, says CSPI. Another dye, Red 3, has been acknowledged for years by the Food and Drug Administration to be a carcinogen, yet is still in the food supply.

Despite those concerns, each year manufacturers pour about 15 million pounds of eight synthetic dyes into our foods. Per capita consumption of dyes has increased five-fold since 1955, thanks in part to the proliferation of brightly colored breakfast cereals, fruit drinks, and candies pitched to children.

“These synthetic chemicals do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, but trigger behavior problems in children and, possibly, cancer in anybody,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, co-author of the 58-page report, “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.” “The Food and Drug Administration should ban dyes, which would force industry to color foods with real food ingredients, not toxic petrochemicals.”

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 and provide reason enough to ban those dyes. Furthermore, numerous studies have demonstrated that dyes cause hyperactivity in children.

But the biggest concern is cancer. Back 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.” However, Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block pressed the Department of Health and Human Services not to ban the dye, and he apparently prevailed—notwithstanding the Delaney Amendment that forbids the use of in foods of cancer-causing color additives. Each year about 200,000 pounds of Red 3 are poured into such foods as Betty Crocker’s Fruit Roll-Ups and ConAgra’s Kid Cuisine frozen meals. Since 1985 more than five million pounds of the dye have been used.

Tests on lab animals of Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 showed signs of causing cancer or suffered from serious flaws, said the consumer group. Yellow 5 also caused mutations, an indication of possible carcinogenicity, in six of 11 tests.

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. However, the levels actually could be far higher, because in the 1990s the FDA and Health Canada found a hundred times as much benzidine in a bound form that is released in the colon, but not detected in the routine tests of purity conducted by the FDA.

“Dyes add no benefits whatsoever to foods, other than making them more ‘eye-catching’ to increase sales,” said 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. Some dyes have caused cancers in animals, contain cancer-causing contaminants, or have been inadequately tested for cancer or other problems. Their continued use presents unnecessary risks to humans, especially young children. It’s disappointing that the FDA has not addressed the toxic threat posed by food dyes.”

CSPI’s report notes that FDA’s regulations mandate a stricter standard of safety for color additives than other food additives, saying that there must be “convincing evidence that establishes with reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the intended use of the color additive.” The standard of “convincing evidence” does not apply to preservatives, emulsifiers, and other additives.

CSPI charges that the FDA is not enforcing the law in several regards:

  • Red 3 and Citrus Red 2 should be banned under the Delaney amendment, because they caused cancer in rats (some uses were banned in 1990), as should Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which are tainted with cancer-causing contaminants.
  • Evidence suggests, though does not prove, that Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, and Yellow 6 cause cancer in animals. There certainly is not “convincing evidence” of safety.
  • Dyed foods should be considered adulterated under the law, because the dyes make a food “appear better or of greater value than it is”—typically by masking the absence of fruit, vegetable, or other more costly ingredient.

In a letter sent today, CSPI urged the FDA to ban all dyes because the scientific studies do not provide convincing evidence of safety, but do provide significant evidence of harm.

A ninth dye, Orange B, is approved for coloring sausage casings, but in 1978 the FDA proposed banning it because it was found to be toxic to rats. The industry has not used Orange B in more than a decade. Also, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has labeled Citrus Red 2 a carcinogen, and the FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives said “this color should not be used as a food additive.” However, it poses little risk because it is approved only for coloring the skins of oranges.

Because of concerns about dyes’ impairment of children’s behavior, the British government asked companies to phase out most dyes by last December 31, and the European Union is requiring, beginning on July 20, a warning notice on most dyed foods. CSPI predicted that the label notice—“may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”—likely will be the death knell for dyes in all of Europe.

The greater government oversight and public concern across the Atlantic results in McDonald’s Strawberry Sundae in Britain being colored with strawberries, but in the United States with Red dye 40. Likewise, the British version of Fanta orange soda gets its bright color from pumpkin and carrot extract, but in the United States the color comes from Red 40 and Yellow 6. Starburst Chews and Skittles, both Mars products, contain synthetic dyes in the United States, but not in Britain.

Fortunately, says CSPI, many natural colorings are available to replace dyes. Beet juice, beta-carotene, blueberry juice concentrate, carrot juice, grape skin extract, paprika, purple sweet potato or corn, red cabbage, and turmeric are some of the substances that provide a vivid spectrum of colors. However, CSPI warns that “natural” does not always mean safe. Carmine and cochineal—colorings obtained from a bright red insect—can cause rare, but severe, anaphylactic reactions. Annatto, too, can cause allergic reactions.

“Food Dyes: Rainbow of Risks” was written by Sarah Kobylewski, a Ph.D. candidate in the Molecular Toxicology Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Jacobson is author of Eater’s Digest: The Consumer’s Factbook of Food Additives (Doubleday, 1972).

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