Nonprofit watchdog group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the artificial food colourings it refers to as the "secret shame" of the food and industry and its regulators. As well as Yellow 5 and Red 40, these are Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, and Yellow 6.
The CSPI said the UK had already banned some of these.
The idea that artificial food colouring affects children's behaviour started in the 1970s when an allergy specialist in San Francisco, Dr Ben Feingold said his patients improved when they changed their diets.
The CSPI said there have been many controlled studies since then, in the US, Europe and Australia, showing that artificial dyes worsens behaviour in some children. Meanwhile, the food industry has increased their use.
The watchdog draws attention to a comprehensive review of the literature that pooled the available data in 2004 and concluded that artificial dyes did affect children's behaviour, and two studies conducted since by the British government found that artificial colouring and the preservative sodium benzoate made children's behaviour worse.
One of the authors of the 2004 meta-analysis, published in the journal Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Dr David Schab, a psychiatrist at Columbia University Medical Center, said:
"The science shows that kids' behavior improves when these artificial colorings are removed from their diets and worsens when they're added to the their diets."
"While not all children seem to be sensitive to these chemicals, it's hard to justify their continued use in foods, especially those foods heavily marketed to young children," he added.
The British studies are particularly important because they drew on the general population and not just on kids with problem behaviour, and this was instrumental in getting the British government to press the food industry into switching to safer additives, said the CSPI.
Judy Mann, of Silver Spring, Maryland, told the CSPI that her family had "spent years" trying to work out the cause of her son's problem behaviour.
"For a long time, we thought the culprit was sugar," said Mann, "but when we started carefully monitoring everything he ate we were able to see that artificial dyes and preservatives were the problem".
"Since eliminating them the change has been positively stunning," she added.
Michael F Jacobson, Executive Director of the CSPI said:
"The continued use of these unnecessary artificial dyes is the secret shame of the food industry and the regulators who watch over it."
"The purpose of these chemicals is often to mask the absence of real food, to increase the appeal of a low-nutrition product to children, or both," he added, asking:
"Who can tell the parents of kids with behavioral problems that this is truly worth the risk?"
The CSPI reports that exposure to artificial food dyes has risen sharply in the last 50 years. Also, FDA figures show that the amount of food colouring passed for safe use was 12 milligrams per person in 1955, compared with 59 milligrams per person in 2007.
Giving examples of how the dyes are used to enhance the shelf appeal of food, CSPI said look at Kraft's Guacamole Dip, the green colour does not come from avocados (not surprising since the product hardly contains any, said the watchdog), but from food dyes, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Blue 1, to be precise.
And another product, Aunt Jemima Blueberry Waffles, get their blue hue not from real blueberries but from Red 40 and Blue 2, they said.
Foods high in artificial dyes tend to be sugary cereals, candy, soda, and snack foods marketed to children. Convenience and fast foods also contain them. The CSPI listed some examples:
- General Mills' Fruit Roll-ups and Fruit-by-the-Foot flavored snacks: these are dyed with Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, and Blue 1.
- General Mills' Fruity Cheerios, Lucky Charms, and Trix; Kellogg's Froot Loops and Apple Jacks; and Post's Fruity Pebbles also contain "several of the problematic dyes" said the CSPI.
- More than a dozen varieties of Kraft's Oscar Meyer Lunchables kids' meals contain artificial food dyes in the US, but not in the UK.
- Mars products like Starburst Chews, Skittles, and M&M candies contain the "full spectrum of artificial colors" in the US, but not in the UK, where they contain natural colourings.
- Even foods that aren't brightly coloured have dyes, including some brands of macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes.
- For example, Betty Crocker's Au Gratin "100% Real" Potatoes contain Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 (both derived from coal tar said the CSPI).
- In the UK, the strawberry colour of McDonald's strawberry sauce for sundaes comes from strawberries, whereas in the US, it comes from Red 40, said the watchdog.
"I can't imagine why the Food and Drug Administration still allows these artificial colors in food, knowing what we know."
"It's almost impossible for parents to eliminate these chemicals from their kids' diets on their own. The FDA could make life a lot easier for parents and children by just getting rid of them," she urged.
Jacobson said that the food industry has been aware of the link between artificial colourings and problem behaviour in children for the last 30 years, and only a few companies have switched to safer alternatives, which is a great shame, because:
"Banning these synthetic chemicals is certainly a far less drastic step than putting so many children on Ritalin or other potentially dangerous and sometimes-abused prescription stimulants."
"We hope today is the beginning of the end for Yellow 5, Red 40, and these other dubious dyes," said Jacobson.
The CPSI has petitioned the FDA to ban the dyes outright, and if not, then at least make the food industry show warning labels on food with artificial dyes. The watchdog has also asked the FDA to change the information on its website about the link between artificial food dyes and behaviour.
The CSPI said its petition has the backing of "19 prominent psychiatrists, toxicologists, and pediatricians" who co-signed a letter "urging members of Congress to hold hearings on artificial food dyes and behavior, and to fund an Institute of Medicine research project on the issue".
Click here for the 2004 meta-analysis by Schwab and Trinh (PDF).
Click here for CSPI.
Click here for FDA.