To dye or not to dye

posted in: Science | 9
Brownfield Ag News America had an interesting blurb on Thurs Feb 12: Maryland may ban certain food colorings.
A couple of bills pending in the Maryland state legislature seek to require labeling and eventually ban some synthetic food colorings. The bills have been pushed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest which charges the food dyes have been linked to ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The Maryland bills deal with the dyes: Blue 1; Blue 2; Green 3; Orange B; Red 3; Red 40; Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. One of the bills would prohibit public schools and child care facilities from providing food with the coloring in it. The second bill would require a label warning: The color additives in this food may cause hyperactivity and behavior problems in some children. Use of the dyes would be banned in the state in 2012.

The food industry opposes the bill saying the link to ADHD is based on flawed research while the Food and Drug Administration states there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that the colorings cause hyperactivity.

I’m rather conflicted about this. On the one hand, there really isn’t any science backing the idea that dye causes ADHD, although perhaps there is a genetic predisposition that is exacerbated by the dye. There are studies showing a link between dye and hyperactivity – is that enough of a reason to ban it? Sugars cause tooth decay and diabetes, high-fat and high-sodium foods cause heart disease… if we ban one, shouldn’t we ban, restrict use of, or at least paste a warning label on the others?
On the other hand, do we need food dye? Shouldn’t food just be the color it is? What about other additives, like sodium benzoate? Do we need those more or less than, say, trans-fats?
Risk benefit analysis may tell us the answer, but we need regulators to actually think through it.
In a correspondence in June 2008 Environ Health Perspectives, titled Food Additives and Hyperactivity, Bernard Weiss writes:

… The Forum article [Barrett (2007)] emphasized how food additives might contribute to the clinical diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder rather than on the more significant finding that food additives, particularly synthetic colors at levels prevailing in the diet, induce adverse behavioral responses. This is hardly a novel finding. In 1980, such effects were documented in two different groups of subjects with two different experimental designs (Swanson and Kinsbourne 1980; Weiss et al. 1980). Many later publications have confirmed their results. I briefly reviewed the data in Environmental Health Perspectives (Weiss 2000).

According to Barrett (2007), a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official, Mike Herndon, maintains that the agency sees “… no reason at this time to change our conclusions that the ingredients that were tested in this study that currently are permitted for food use in the United States are safe for the general population.” This is a rather baffling statement. In fact, our study (Weiss et al. 1980) was funded by the FDA, and its results, along with a number of others from that period, definitively demonstrated adverse behavioral effects of synthetic food colors (Weiss 1982). During the intervening years, with a plethora of confirmations, the FDA has remained blindly obstinate. It continues to shield food additives from testing for neurotoxicity and apparently believes that adverse behavioral responses are not an expression of toxicity.

Herndon and the FDA should seriously consider what the late Philip Handler said about balancing risks and benefits:

A sensible guide would surely be to reduce exposure to hazard whenever possible, to accept substantial hazard only for great benefit, minor hazard for modest benefit, and no hazard at all when the benefit seems relatively trivial. (Handler 1979)

The FDA has never clarified the health benefits of artificial food colors.

Balancing risks and benefits can help us to rank various ingredients, additives, processes, methods. It’s not that easy, though. These food dyes have no health benefit but do have economic benefits to the companies selling products like juice drinks, for example. What about natural colorants, like beet juice? Some might argue they are superior to artificial dyes, but some people are allergic to beet juice. There just isn’t a clear answer. I have to wonder if the best answer isn’t to let people decide for themselves.
I really like the idea of stickers with websites or even better barcodes that could be scanned with an iPhone or similar device. Rather than cramming a ton of labels onto the product, consumers could obtain information if they wished, in a format that could actually present valuable information. As Pamela Ronald pointed out in To Label or not to Label, a lot of labels are utterly unhelpful to the average person, serving only to confuse and alarm. The ability to see detailed information about a product (perhaps an ingredient list linking to a FDA or NGO database of studies or up-to-date summaries?) would be more helpful and allow people to decide for themselves.
Bernard Weiss (2008). Food Additives and Hyperactivity Environmental Health Perspectives, 116 (6) DOI: 10.1289/ehp.11182
Lovely photo of Red velvet cake mix by designergeek via flickr.

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!