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Is the FDA really in our corner? The Hidden Truth About Artificial Food Colors



Is the FDA really in our corner?  The Hidden Truth About Artificial Food Colors


Renee Shutters of Jamestown, NY, noticed adverse effects in her son’s behavior and attention span after he consumed M&Ms made with artificial food colorings (AFCs). Shutters started a petition on calling out food manufacturing company Mars for their use of synthetic food coloring in M&M’s. After sharing her story on multiple news outlets, including The Today Show and The New York Times, Mars empathized with the family’s story, claiming they would remove food dyes from M&Ms. Ten years later, M&M’s in the United States continue to include the common artificial food colorings, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Red 40, in their ingredient list.

Shutters isn’t alone in fighting for the safety of food dyes. Many others have pressured the FDA to make a change in their approval process for food colorings. Rightly so, many countries, such as Norway, Finland and Switzerland, have banned certain AFCs entirely, and the EU even warns the public about the potential adverse effects of AFCs on product labels. In the US, AFCs were approved by the FDA between 1969 and 1987, but the FDA has still not changed this legislation, even after decades of research.

The debate surrounding AFCs has been going on for years as studies have highlighted their effects on children. Most notably, a 2007 study conducted by the University of Southampton linked AFCs to hyperactivity, including inattention, increased movement and impulsivity. In addition, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Red 40 were found to contain benzidine, a manufactured chemical known to increase the risk of cancer. Another study even linked AFCs to DNA damage.

In 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer organization, petitioned the FDA to ban the use of synthetic dyes. The CSPI knew this wouldn’t happen overnight, so they proposed an interim policy for the FDA to require warning labels on such products. No changes were made, however, as the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee voted 13-1 in favor of more research on the topic and 8-6 against the addition of warning labels. At the same time, in 2008, the European Union announced their plan to add warning labels to all food products containing artificial colors. In 2010, warning labels stating “May adversely affect activity and attention in children” were successfully implemented.

Nearly 15 years later, Americans continue to consume AFCs in more than 350 products, all readily available across the country. Europeans, on the other hand, enjoy the same products, with better ingredients. Possibly in an attempt to avoid the warning label requirement, some companies in the EU have actually changed their ingredients. The food blogger Food Babe compares ingredients used in the US with those in the EU. For example, Mountain Dew in the US gets its bright yellow color from AFC Yellow 5, but in the EU it gets the same color from beta-carotene, the pigment commonly found in carrots. How is this fair?

Most recently, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) conducted a 2021 review of food colorings and found evidence of neurobehavioral problems. This ultimately led to California Governor Gavin Newsom signing a new bill into law last year aimed at protecting consumers from food additives.

In my opinion, I don’t think anyone would support the use of AFCs, except perhaps the food companies themselves. AFCs are cheaper, last longer and give products their bright colors, some of which are not possible with more natural ingredients. For the makers of products like Skittles, Doritos, Fruit Loops, Jello and more, AFCs are a way to make these treats delicious and appealing to kids. However, as parents, it is important to look at the data and limit these products from your children for their own health and safety. There are an abundance of nutrient-dense foods to fuel your kids, as well as snacks filled with carcinogens! If the FDA won’t do its job of more stringently regulating ingredients, then it’s up to us to do it for them.

In reality, the US lags far behind other countries in food safety. The FDA acknowledges that AFCs may have an effect on some children, but says research is still ongoing. Two in three Americans are overweight or obese (69%), compared to just half of our European neighbors. Due to the highly processed diets that more Americans consume, AFCs may be contributing to our country’s chronic health problems. It is critical to pressure the FDA to adhere to its mission to protect public health and follow science-based ingredient information. To learn how you can help spark change in food additive legislation, support organizations fighting for this issue, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or send ingredient complaints directly to the FDA or by contacting with a complaints coordinator in your state.

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About the author: Gabriella Meringolo is a graduate student at Robert at New York University. F Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She is currently pursuing her Master of Public Administration (MPA) in Health Policy and Management, with a specialization in Health Services Management. Meringolo also works full-time as a Senior Project Coordinator for NYU Langone Health. As part of the Network Integration department, she oversees the quality performance of the organization’s value-based contracts with Medicare Advantage, Medicaid and Commercial Health Plans.

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