Synthetic and natural dyes added to foods pose a great risk towards human health. Food dyes are monitored by the Food and Drug Administration yet have been proven dangerous in several circumstances over many decades. Long-term risks have been barely studied, leaving the door open for a problematic future for those who normally intake food dyes. Although some food dyes have been deemed safe, their potential for producing a heath risk is still great. Dyes have been linked to cancer, tumors, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and an array of other irregular conditions. With timely knowledge and diligence, we may overcome yet another pollutant.
Each day, most Americans consume 2-naphthalenesulfonic acid. It is in drinks, baked goods, dairy, sauces, cereals, candy, and even pickles. It has also been added to other fruits and vegetables. In fact, this manmade creation has many other chemical compounds like itself. The United States Food and Drug Administration, hereby known as the FDA, permits seven of these substances to be added to all sorts of food. 2-naphthalenesulfonic acid, or better known as Red No. 40, is one of the three most common food dyes Americans have grown up intaking into their bodies on a normal basis (Burrows, 2006). While these food dyes are deemed safe by a seemingly knowledgeable source, one may be surprised to find out how little the public actually knows. This report will discuss a brief history and current use of food dyes, the dangers of food dyes, and the ethical considerations on both a global and personal level.
Red No. 40, Blue No. 1, and Yellow No. 5 are the three most common American food dyes, and without surprise are the three primary colors. The food industry can create nearly any color with these three dyes. However, there are seven food dyes that are allowed by the FDA. In 1906, seven dyes were initially approved under the Pure Food and Drug Act, but several of those were either delisted or replaced. A few delisted dyes include Red No. 32 and Orange No. 2, once used to add color to Florida oranges, and Orange No. 1, one of the first water soluble dyes to be commercialized (Burrows, 2006). Dyes are not soluble in water. Dyes also have side effects, an intriguing one being that they can change the color of one’s stool.
Dyes are manufactured as powders, liquids, and granules. They are synthesized creations originally from coal tar and now petroleum. Companies favor these dyes because they are cheaper, more stable, and brighter than most natural colorings. Excitingly, since the United States is growing a preference for natural foods, this is leading some companies to either not add colorings or to switch to safe, natural colorings. Dyes are used to create colors that are more appealing to the eyes, and it has been said that we “eat with our eyes as much as with our mouths.” Imagine Jell-O, Froot Loops, or even some popular juices without any food dye added. Surprisingly, foods are not naturally as colorful as they often are. Food dyes turn unattractive mixtures of basic ingredients and food additives into alluring novelties (Jacobson & Kobylewski, 2010).
The FDA requires that each batch of food dye be tested and certified to meet legal specifications; Why are other food additives not required to undergo such scrutiny? A benefit of this process is that a mandatory inventory of all manufactured food dye is reported and compiled by the FDA. Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 account for 90% of all dyes used. In the fiscal year of 2009, over 15 million pounds of food dye were certified, and thus were used in food production (Jacobson & Kobylewski, 2010). Five times more food dye is being used today than in 1955. This fact may go to show how Americans have increasingly relied on processed foods.
Studies conducted on food dyes show mixed findings, and come from questionable sources. For instance, many studies were conducted by dye manufacturers, thus posing the question of whether or not biases influenced the design, conduct, or interpretation of the studies. Another importance to note is that the studies were short-term, and none of them lasted more than two years. To fully analyze the health risks of something, the variable in question should be analyzed for the complete life cycle of the specimen upon which is being tested. In the studies, lab rats and mice were the sole victims of the experiment. What was left out of the studies was testing of mixtures of compounds. Individual dyes may be harmless alone, but combined with other dyes are the concerns heightened? Many foods contain more than one dye, whether to achieve a unique color or to provide color for different parts of the whole. The Kellogg cereal Fruit Loops contains a gamut of food dyes to create their assortment of colorful loops.
After understanding the United State’s reliance on food dyes, a basket of grocery store items was produced and examined for use of food dye (Table 1).
|Table 1. Food dyes in typical United States grocery store items|
|Strawberry Jelly||Red 40|
|Jif Peanut Butter Bars||Red 40|
|Orange Juice||Yellow 5 & 6|
|Kraft Cheese||Yellow 5 & 6|
|Mott’s Applesauce||No dyes used|
|Canned cherries||Red 3|
Each product was chosen under the following criteria: 1) Is a common American household food that has been around for at least a decade, and 2) Is seemingly composed of basic ingredients with minor additional processing methods. The results indicate that food dyes exist in each group. The basket of goods were pre-determined, though, which may lead to speculation about the data’s subjectivity. A random basket of goods and whether or not they contain food dye can be found in the appendix (Table A1).
A report in 1990 by the FDA stated that “cherries in the 21st century fruit cocktail could well be light brown.” The report went on to say that large amounts of Red No. 3 caused cancer in rats. Lastly, the report claimed that Red No. 3 use in cocktail cherries will be immediately ended, but remaining uses for Red No. 3 other than in cherries were being planned (Blumenthal, 1990). Action should have been taken immediately. This report could have been an early warning sign for the United States; It was published two decades ago. Even more shocking, as will be shown later, is that research pertaining to the safety of food dyes has been scholarly journaled since the early 1970s.
Dyes, as previously noted, are not pure chemicals. Some of the chemicals that make the dyes, including 4-aminobiphenyl, 4-aminoazobenzene, and benzidine, are carcinogens. According to the FDA, however, the levels of these carcinogens in approved food dyes are present at safely negligible levels. FDA chemists ensure that each batch meets this standard to confirm that tolerances are not exceeded. The limits on contaminants are intended to ensure than no more than 1 in 1,000,000 people will generate cancer. However, a June 2010 study by Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., the Executive Director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Sarah Kobylewski, Ph.D. Candidate for the University of California’s molecular toxicology program, are not convinced of the soundness of the FDA’s regulation standards.
Jacobson and Kobylewski found that the standards for tolerances were based on dye usage in 1990, but per-capita dye usage has increased nearly 50% since then. Also, effects on children have not been properly taken into account. The FDA did not consider the increased threats posed to children since their bodies are more sensitive to carcinogens. They have weaker immune systems, and their intake of food dye is greater per unit of body weight than adults. Lastly, the FDA scientists found that the amount of bound benzidine, a carcinogen in Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 dyes, far surpasses levels of free dyes. The FDA only measure “free” contaminants, and in this case bound benzidine is “bound” and thus not “free.” However, bound benzidine is largely converted to the free form in the large intestine. Large amounts of other carcinogenic contaminants might also be present in the bound form.
Stemming from Jacobson and Kobylewski’s findings, what is the possibility that food dyes can legitimately cause cancer? Consider the fact that in 6 out of 11 genotoxicity studies on Yellow 5, the results are positive; It is an indication that the chemical might cause cancer in humans. One or two positive genotoxicity studies may not necessarily be too alarming, but 6 out of 11 is something different (Jacobson & Kobylewski, 2010). In contrast, only 1 of 11 genotoxicity studies on Blue 2 was positive. In the following paragraph, let us analyze the traditional toxicology of food dye, taking into account potential organ damage, cancer, birth defects, and the like.
Some products made by PepsiCo, Kraft, Mars, McDonald’s, and other major U.S. international companies contain dyes in the United States, but natural or no colorings in the United Kingdom. Is the previous statement enough of a warning that something about food dyes is health threatening? In the 1970s, San Francisco allergist Benjamin Feingold observed that food dyes could cause hyperactivity and other impaired behaviors in children and adults (Buckley & Hawley, 1974). A journal by medical doctors Buckley and Hawley concluded that the disorder of hyperkinetic children is much more common in the United States than other countries. This frequency of developed disorders can be traced to the United States’ extensive use of food dyes and additives in the vast array of processed foods.
Buckley and Hawley determined a simple method to test their hypothesis. After acquiring store-bought dye concentrate, a series of one to five dilutions is made and one drop is placed under a child’s tongue. The child is then observed for 15 minutes. If no change is noted in those 15 minutes, an additional drop may be administered. Multiple times the child’s heart rate increased and/or their activity level gradually increased. Less than an hour of observation, however, is very short-term. Long-term studies of food dyes are either nonexistent, or are currently underway and far from conclusive in their research findings.
Perspectives vary greatly on food additives’ impact on human health. Relationships in some studies are not consistent. Uneven results are often the result of weakly powered studies and poor methodology. Contrastingly, some good data have been produced over the years from randomized controlled trials and other study designs. Continued research and even a split between parent advocacy groups are by-products of inconclusive studies (Kaplan, 2010).
Cochineal, a scarlet dye, is made up of dried bodies of a female scale insect, which are crushed to make the additive. As if petroleum and the other previously mentioned ingredients of food dyes are not harmful enough, dead bugs make up yet another dye. Food corporations, biologists, and chemists are continuously finding new things to throw into foods. Most Americans cannot pronounce a handful of the ingredients in foods they consume every day. And while more and more food companies claim they are using 100 percent natural ingredients, most of the time we are not even sure what the ingredients are. Plants on the other side of the planet and with names most of us are completely unfamiliar with are being frequently added to hundreds of foods for different purposes. Such purposes include dying foods, thickening foods, making foods less sticky, keeping liquids homogenous, and so on.
According to an article by New Scientist, food dyes may have a good side: some of them may protect against cancer (Anonymous, 2008). The article refers to Gayle Orner of Oregon State University in Corvallis, who presented her results at the American Association for Cancer Research in San Diego, California. Orner’s results found that trout who had been fed dibenzopyrene, a carcinogen, along with food dye, showed 50% fewer liver tumors than trout fed with the carcinogen alone. Additionally, 50% of the trout had a lower incidence of stomach cancer and 40% had a lower incidence of liver cancer. Unfortunately, due to the lack of sufficient information stemming from the article, it would be inaccurate to state Orner’s results as accurate.
Limiting attention to dyes in food alone is shortcoming. Dyes are used in many products, including often-overlooked cosmetics. Different than food dyes, cosmetic dyes are either applied to head hair or directly on skin; Mascara and blush are two examples of dye-ridden topical cosmetics. In 1986, the FDA approved four cosmetic dyes for which cancer risk was “trivial,” and the decision was based on the legal adage “de minimis non curat lex,” meaning that the law does not concern itself with something of little value or importance (Blumenthal, 1990).
Research on food dyes is not exactly something new, but because our food industry has exploded in size over the past few decades, we are behind in our studies. Factories are becoming more automated and resemble that of Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Everything is nailed down to such a science that science itself has been overlooked! We are ignoring potential threats so that we may reap the benefits or discounts that result in a multinational corporation. Money is the focus in lieu of ethics and morals. Policies should be enforced nationally and globally to ensure that the highest food safety measures have been taken and will continue. As a global power, we should help struggling countries improve their health systems and educate their food industries on the dangers of food dyes as well as other threats to their foods. The FDA has done a sufficient job in cutting off dangerous food dyes, but more research can be done to ensure that an epidemic will not result. Again, we are still uncertain as to what extent lie food dyes’ long-term risks.
Continuing our ethical considerations, everything comes down to the common man. It is each individual’s right to choose which foods they buy and what they put into their bodies. While Sunny Delight and Hi-C may be the cheapest “juice” beverages compared to real orange or other fruit juice, they contain significant levels of food dyes. It is our job to personally pursue the health information needed to make an active decision. We have, for too long, been led by large corporations and companies that care little about their customers’ health. All food dyes may not be bad, in fact, nothing in this report claims that any of the current food dyes are moderately dangerous, but this is because we know and have researched very little.
Paralleling the overarching theme of our Health & Pollution course, we must take matters into our own hands. Human error has killed thousands upon thousands of individuals; From water pollution, air pollution, food contamination, poisoning, disease epidemic, and so much more, our bodies are susceptible to damage too easily. In our lifetime, we have the opportunity to make great advances for mankind. With knowledge alone, we can make substantial advances by word of mouth alone. Without taking one more health class or giving one more speech, our class can impact our families, friends, and communities. Bad practices can spread like wildfire, and American obesity is just one example, but good practices can also spread just as quickly. Just as the organic food industry has grown tenfold in the past decade, so can the proper education about the health risks associated with food dyes and other irrefutable threats toward public health.
|Table A1. Random basket of goods and their dyes|
|Tyson chicken||Natural and artificial colors|
|Green Giant green beans||No dyes used|
|Campbell’s chicken & noodle soup||Beta carotene|
|Welch’s grape jelly||Natural and artificial colors|
|Borden American cheese||Natural and artificial colors|
|Hunts ketchup||No dyes used|
|Vlassic pickles||No dyes used|
|Hellman’s mayonnaise||Beta carotene|
|Stouffer’s pizza||Beta carotene, annatto|
|Breyer’s butter pecan ice cream||No dyes used|
|Wrigley’s spearmint gum||Yellow 5, Blue 1|
|Nestle Crunch||Natural and artificial colors|
|Coca-cola||At one point cochineal or Red 4, a literal bug dye, and now “caramel color”|
|Sunny Delight||Beta carotene, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6|
|Ragu Alfredo sauce||Natural and artificial colors|
Blumenthal, D., (1990). Red No. 3 and Other Colorful Controversies. United States Food and Drug Administration.
Buckley, R., Hawley, C., (1974). Hyperkinesis and Sensitivity to the Aniline Food Dyes.
Burrows, A., (2006). A brief history of food coloring and its regulation. Harvard Law School.
Jacobson, M., Kobylewski, S. (2010). Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks. Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Kaplan, B., (2010). Food Additives and Behavior: First Genetic Insights. The American Journal of Psychiatry. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.10060795
Anonymous, (2008). The bright side of food colourings. New Scientist, Vol. 198, Issue 2653.