June 29, 2010 -- Chemical dyes used for food coloring carry serious health risks and should be banned, says a new report from a consumer group.
The group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), notes that none of the nine artificial food dyes approved for U.S. use have been proven safe. However, human and animal studies suggest that at least several of the chemicals carry health risks.
"For a food additive that does not provide any health or safety benefit whatsoever, there should be a very strict standard for safety. Food dyes do not meet that standard," CSPI Executive Director and study co-author Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, tells WebMD.
"These colors carry risks," says Bernard Weiss, PhD, professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester. "The question for parents is this: Is it worth taking even minimal risks for benefits that do not exist?"
Weiss was not involved in the CSPI report. However, in 1980 he reported clinical studies showing that food dyes can cause behavioral problems in children.
On July 20, a European Union regulation passed in 2008 will take effect. It requires foods containing any of six food colors to carry a label warning "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." This is the concern that in 2008 led the CSPI to ask the FDA to ban the dyes. Now the group points to animal studies suggesting that the dyes -- and other chemicals bound to them -- can cause cancer.
Jacobson admits that most the studies of food dyes are of poor quality. But that, he says, is part of the problem.
"The FDA has not looked at the safety of food dyes in 15 or 20 years," Jacobson says. "To accept widely used dyes that have these bound carcinogens is shameful."
Weiss says he, too, has trouble understanding FDA inaction.
"Why is the FDA sitting around doing nothing?" he says. "Why does the FDA still permit food colors to be placed in food and marketed without adequate research on their neurotoxic properties? They have been screwing around with criteria for evaluating neurotoxicity for 30 years, and they still have not compelled the manufacturers to do it."
The FDA was unable to respond to WebMD's request for comment in time for publication. The FDA web site does feature a consumer-friendly brochure on food ingredients and food coloring. The reassuring brochure was developed by the International Food Information Council, a U.S. nonprofit group largely funded by the food industry.
"Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat," the brochure reads.
Children eat lots of processed foods, including brightly colored cereals and soft drinks. And it's children who are most vulnerable to toxic chemicals in food, Jacobson suggests.
"Kids are exposed to food dyes much more than adults are, and kids are probably much more sensitive to carcinogens," he says. "Also, the amount of dye used in foods has increased considerably in last few years."
Jacobson says natural food colorings, such as beta-carotene or blueberry juice, can be substituted for artificial food dyes.