Food safety group targets artificial dyes

June 05, 2008|By Mike Hughlett | Mike Hughlett,Chicago Tribune

Spurred on by a successful revolt against artificial food dyes in the United Kingdom, a prominent U.S. food safety advocacy group Tuesday called on federal regulators to ban several colorings, claiming they're linked to hyperactivity in children.

Although it may be a long shot - the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has rejected such claims - food safety advocates say they hope that by putting a spotlight on the issue, producers will voluntarily drop artificial colors.

That's what has been happening in the U.K., as industry giants such as Kraft Foods and Mars have reacted to increasing consumer worries over artificial colors, particularly after a British study bolstered the hyperactivity theory.

Late last year, Mars banished artificial colors from its well-known Starburst and Skittles candies sold in the U.K. Kraft did the same in early 2007 with its British version of Lunchables.

"This is about listening to consumers," said Kraft spokesman Michael Mitchell.

Thus far, U.S. consumers haven't spoken up enough to cause big manufacturers to drop the dyes. Kraft's market research in the United Kingdom has shown a "much higher interest" in food dyes than in the United States. Here, consumers are more interested in calorie, fat and sodium content, he said. So in the U.S., Kraft, Mars and others use artificial dyes, which tend to be less expensive and look more vibrant than natural colorings.

Artificial food dyes, which are primarily derived from petroleum and coal tars, are a staple in breakfast cereals, snacks and soft drinks. In a petition to the FDA, the Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the agency to ban the two most commonly used dyes, Red 40 and Yellow 5, as well as six other colors. Such petitions can take years to decide, so the group asked the FDA to require foods containing artificial dyes to sport warning labels as an interim measure.

Worries over food dyes have existed for decades. A tempest over Red Dye No. 3, which in high doses caused cancer in lab animals, caused the FDA to ban many uses of it in 1990. The idea of a link between artificial colors and hyperactivity stems back to the 1970s, although the FDA has disputed it.

"Well-controlled studies since then have produced no evidence that food color additives cause hyperactivity or learning disabilities in children," the FDA says on its Web site.

In an e-mail Tuesday, the agency said it's "not aware of any information at this time that would change [that] position." But the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that in recent years, more research has linked artificial dyes and hyperactivity. It cites a study funded by the British government and published in September in a U.K. medical journal.

Mike Hughlett writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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