Americans are dying to eat

Try pronouncing disodium 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl) azo)-2-naphthalene-sulfonate.

It’s not easy, right? That explains why this mouthful goes by its friendlier name, Red 40. It might sound innocent, but this ingredient and others like it are far from harmless. And they’re in our food.

For years, we at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and food-safety officials in Europe have highlighted studies linking food dyes to hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children. The British government and the European Parliament even decided to phase out artificial dyes based on these concerns alone, but the same can’t be said for the United States. So why do food manufacturers continue to pour about 15 million pounds of eight synthetic dyes into the American food supply every year?

Well, we’ve tried to do something about it. In 2008, my organization petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban food dyes because of evidence that they cause hyperactivity and other problems in children. So far, the agency has made little progress dealing with this grave problem.

Now, after a close review of all of the major animal tests of food dyes, I fear these dyes may pose an even graver risk than hyperactivity: Cancer.

The FDA has recognized that one food dye (Red 3) is a carcinogen, and two widely used dyes contain cancer-causing contaminants. Somehow, these conclusions haven’t been enough for the FDA to ban them.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is hoping to see more action because our new investigation exposes the rainbow of risks posed by Red 40, Yellow 5, and other synthetic petroleum-based food dyes. We found that Yellow 5 caused mutations in numerous studies, and that most other food dyes have not been adequately tested.

Consider Yellow 6. A rat study linked this dye to possible tumors of the adrenal gland and testicles (though the study wasn’t conclusive). Neither of the two mouse studies tested the dyes on the animals in utero–which ensures that animals are exposed to dyes throughout their lifespan, including as embryos and newborns. Moreover, like Red 40 and Yellow 5, it is contaminated with illegally high levels of benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl, known carcinogens. The FDA has done nothing.

Red 3 caused thyroid tumors in rats. Back in 1985 the acting commissioner of the FDA said the dye was “of greatest public health concern,” but the FDA did nothing. Since then, companies have dumped five million pounds of the dye into our food.

Citrus Red 2 is used to color the skins of some oranges and has caused bladder cancer in mice and rats. Yellows 5 and 6 and Blue 1 cause occasionally severe allergic reactions in some people. The abstract of one unpublished mouse study says Blue 1 caused kidney tumors.

Knowing this, you’d think the food industry would use less, or even eliminate, these chemicals. But thanks in part to the proliferation of brightly colored breakfast cereals, fruit drinks, and candies pitched to children, per-capita consumption of dyes has increased five-fold since 1955. And of course, these dyes are often used to simulate the presence of missing fruits in fruit-flavored kids’ foods.

Since the ban of food dyes in the United Kingdom, companies such as McDonald’s, Mars, and Kellogg have reformulated their products sold there, but have neglected American consumers. In the United Kingdom, a McDonald’s Strawberry Sundae is colored only with strawberries, but in the United States it contains Red dye 40. Kellogg’s Strawberry Nutri-Grain bars have Red 40, Yellow 6, and Blue 1 in the U.S., but use beetroot, annatto, and paprika extract as colorings in the U.K. Starburst Chews and Skittles, both Mars products, contain synthetic dyes in the U.S., but not in Britain.

Frankly, we’d all be better off if we just ate more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and stopped consuming packaged foods. But I’m certain that if the geniuses at, say, Kraft, got together they could find a way to make macaroni and cheese without Yellow 5. Actually, the company already makes a dye-free version meant for adults.

The FDA can help too by banning these discredited dyes once and for all, reducing the cancer risks in our cupboards.

Michael F. Jacobson is the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Distributed by Other Words, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Photo: cc 2.0