Magazine article Science News

The Color of Controversy: Link between Food Dyes, Childhood Hyperactivity Gets Renewed Attention

Magazine article Science News

The Color of Controversy: Link between Food Dyes, Childhood Hyperactivity Gets Renewed Attention

Article excerpt


When it comes to the safety of dyeing food, the one true shade is gray.

Artificial colorings have been around for decades, and for just about as long, people have questioned whether tinted food is a good idea. In the 1800s, when merchants colored their products with outright poisons, critics had a pretty good case. Today's safety questions, though, aren't nearly so black and white--and neither are the answers.

Take the conclusions reached by a recent government inquiry: Depending on your point of view, an official food advisory panel either affirmed that food dyes were safe, questioned whether they were safe enough or offered a conclusion that somehow merged the two. It was a glass of cherry Kool-Aid half full or half empty.

About the only thing all sides agree on is that there would be no discussion if shoppers didn't feast with their eyes. Left alone, margarine would be colorless, cola wouldn't be dark, peas and pickles might not be so vibrantly green, and kids cereals would rarely end up with the neon hues of candy. But as the 1990s flop of Crystal Pepsi showed, consumers expect their food to look a certain way.

Some of the earliest attempts to dye food used substances such as chalk or

copper--or lead, once a favorite for candy--that turned out to be clearly harmful. Most of the added colors in use today were originally extracted from coal tar but now are mostly derived from petroleum.

Overseeing the safety of artificial food color was one of the reasons the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was founded (with its current name, in 1930). And the issue of food dye safety has continued to attract government notice, sometimes in dramatic ways, such as the time investigators demanded to know why trick-or-treaters became ill in 1950 after eating Halloween candy dyed with orange No. 1.

The most recent government attention came in March, when an FDA advisory panel made up of scientists, consumers and industry representatives held a two-day hearing to try to determine whether food dyes cause hyperactivity in children. It is a debate that has gone on, in some incarnation, more than 30 years. Though scientific attention has grown, the disagreement lingers, partly because the issue is complicated to study and partly because dyes, if harmful, probably affect only a subset of children who have some yet-undiscovered genetic sensitivity. Over the years, skeptics of any connection have seized on uncertainties and other logistical flaws in the research that could lead to misleading results.

Still, many scientists say studies are strong enough to warrant some kind of government action. And some of them are now criticizing the FDA, saying that, in retrospect, questions about the hyperactivity-dye link were presented to the advisory panel in a way that meant inaction was almost a foregone conclusion.

"To me, the whole process was defective," says Bernard Weiss, a psychologist in the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York who was invited to speak before the panel. The main question that committee members were assigned was whether "a causal relationship between consumption of certified color additives in food and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established" (a conclusion ultimately supported by 11 of 14 voting panel members).

Weiss calls that "a ridiculous question," not only because of its tortured, negative wording, but also because even those concerned about food dyes acknowledge that the science has not shown a link to hyperactivity in all kids.

Untrue colors

Nine different artificial dyes are currently approved for use in the United States; many of these chemicals have been staples of the food industry for generations. While the FDA does not have data on consumption, it does keep track of how much dye of each type gets the OK for use in products; the amount per capita has increased fivefold since the 1950s. …

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