Monday, April 18, 2011

Warning Colors

Image Credit: Benjamin Golub

Late last month the FDA shot down a petition to ban the use of artificial coloring in foods, despite acknowledging evidence that these additives may aggravate hyperactivity in children with behavioral disorders. In fact, the agency decided that even mandating warning labels about the correlation was unnecessary. Parents throughout the U.S. have been ranting about this ever since. How mad should you be over the FDA’s ruling? If Yellow No. 5 and its ilk are so safe, why don’t Europeans have to eat them? And who needs colorful food anyway?

Seeing Red
Controversy over food coloring is nothing new, and what makes or breaks a proposed ban is a mixture of science, public perception and industry lobbying. Early laws prohibiting the use of artificial yellow in margarine had more to do with bullying from the dairy industry (who stood to lose money to a cheaper new product) than with public health. Similarly, the 1976 FDA de-listing of Red No. 2 occurred despite inconclusive scientific data. Studies aimed at demonstrating the hazards of the additive were flawed and inconsistent, but a public relations storm was brewing and, in this instance, the FDA found it more favorable to appease consumers than the industry. By the time the decision was made, public opinion of Red No. 2 was so low that the makers of M&M’s candies discontinued red M&Ms, even though they got their color from chemicals still considered safe at that time.*

Scary cherry.
Image Credit: Jay Keaton
Following a new set of disputed data, in 1990 the FDA promised to phase out another crimson hue, Red No. 3 (used to make the cherries in canned fruit cocktail a shade other than boiled and processed brown), but without actually specifying when. † This time industry pressure was stronger than public outrage. Whining from the fruit cocktail lobby, who wisely assessed that their canned product would become completely undesirable without the pretty cherries, has managed to delay a full ban indefinitely.

Field research for this article – which involved a survey of my own refrigerator, a trip to the grocery store and a whim-driven purchase of a bag of Sour Patch Kids – revealed that maraschino cherries  are as red as ever, but currently get their color from Red No. 40, which is also responsible for the pigmentation of my newly acquired gummy candy, and a long-forgotten jar of HEB brand plum-flavored fruit spread. However, Red No. 3 lives on in the standard set of assorted food coloring I purchased two years ago to make fake blood for a photo shoot (and eventually holiday cookies).

Weighing the Evidence
While not the only data supporting a connection between artificial food coloring and hyperactivity in children, the 2007 “Southampton study” was particularly important as it led to the phasing out of 6 artificial colors in the European Union (EU). It is worth noting that, of the 6 hues involved in the study, only 3 are on the list of colors currently approved by the FDA (Yellow No. 6, Yellow No. 5, and Red No. 40) and that the colors were examined in 4-color mixes (with a preservative added) rather than individually. § Still, the study found adverse effects among 8 to 9-year-old children with both mixes, including the second concoction, which was specifically designed to emulate the dose and variety of additives that would be encountered by the average lolly-eating British kid. As with the Red No. 3, the scandal factor surrounding this issue in Europe was high. In 2008 the Food Standards Agency recommended phasing out all 6 of the dyes used in the Southampton study in the EU. For this reason, people eating processed food (made by the same manufacturers, mind you) on the European side of the Atlantic have their snacks tinted with food-derived colors while those of us on the American side are still consuming the artificially-colored versions.

Color Cues
Unwilling to cope with beige snacks, Europe dealt with the bad news about artificial coloring by decorating foods with things like beet extract and paprika. There is much evidence that both our enjoyment of food and our comprehension of its flavor rely heavily on color. Studies have shown that subjects can better identify flavors in appropriately colored foodstuffs (lime drink colored green) than in those with mismatched colors (lime drink colored red). And let’s not forget the colossal flop of the deliberately de-colored Crystal Pepsi back in the early 1990s. Despite initially attracting consumers with its novelty value, the beverage did not look like a cola and therefore it failed to taste like one.

Without color vision, delicious jellybeans
would just look like insect larva.
Image Credit: Ross Websdale
In his clinical essay, The Case of the Colorblind Painter, Oliver Sacks tells the story of an artist who becomes completely colorblind following a head injury. Forced to view the world in only shades of grey, one of the many losses was that of a tasty meal. Sacks writes, “He found foods disgusting due to their greyish, dead appearance and had to close his eyes to eat.” Gradually, the patient gravitated toward foods that were in reality black and white (olives and rice, for example) as only these appeared “normal”.

From an evolutionary perspective, there is some value to judging a book by its color. Food hues not only warn against items that are likely to be spoiled or poisonous (blue and black) but also draw us toward essential nutrients (red peppers, orange carrots, green broccoli). One of the problems with colored snack food, whether its appearance is achieved through beet extract or through Red No. 40, is that it satisfies the urge to eat colorful foods without providing any of the nutrition benefits of real fruits and vegetables.

"The dose makes the poison"
So said sixteenth-century scientist Paracelsus, whose name was coincidentally brought to my attention this past week. In large enough quantities, drinking water can kill you. While I’m all for better food labeling, I’m not convinced of a need to ban artificial coloring altogether. As a child, I enthusiastically ate Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for lunch daily over the duration of an entire summer, but I wouldn’t call this a healthy meal, even without its synthetically derived yellow. Processed foods with or without artificial colors are often still high in preservatives, saturated fats and sugar – the latter ingredient was discussed at length in a recent New York Times article – and low in vitamins and fiber. The real issue is not the high volume of artificial food coloring consumed by U.S. children (and adults), but rather the high volume of artificial food. Occasional junk food treats are acceptable in low doses, but for everyday eating, the goal should be not to choose foods colored with naturally-derived dyes, but foods that don’t need additional color in the first place.

* Like a disgraced television executive, the red candies returned (a decade later) after the bad press died down.

 The studies in question involved feeding doses of Red No. 3 to mice that were much higher than what a human could ingest through food alone. People disagree on whether an additive should be proven safe in any dose or just safe in normal doses.

 I mention maraschino cherries because, shockingly, I did not encounter canned fruit cocktail during my investigations, and Dole’s website would not show me ingredient listings for their canned fruit. For now we’ll have to assume the same cherries are featured in fruit cocktail.

§ It’s entirely possible that a single ingredient is making other more well-behaved colors look bad. The sinister Yellow No. 6, for instance, or even the villainously un-colored preservative sodium benzoate, which appeared in both mixtures tested. This is the kind of experimental design that allows government agencies to stall and request “more research” before taking action.

Who told you this?

Harris, G. “Artificial Dye Safe to Eat, Panel Says.” The New York Times, 31 March 2011.

Burrows, A., 2009. “Palette of Our Palates: A Brief History of Food Coloring and Its Regulation.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 8: 394-408.

Zampini, M., et al. 2008. “Multisensory flavor perception: Assessing the influence of fruit acids and color cues on the perception of fruit-flavored beverages.” Food Quality and Preference 19: 335–343.

“UK Food Standards Agency Cites Southampton Study In New Recommendation On Food Additives.”, 13 Apr 2008.

McCann, D., et al. 2007. “Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and
8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial.” The Lancet 370: 1560-1567.