After new scientific evidence revealed a possible link between food dyes and childhood cancer and hyperactivity, Australian food authorities are reported to be considering banning food colorings from breakfast cereals and confectionary items. The research was carried out by CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest), USA.

According to CSPI, food dyes are used in everything, from M&Ms to Kraft salad dressings, and they pose risks of childhood cancer, hyperactivity and allergies.

The three most commonly and widely used dyes are contaminated with known carcinogens, says CSPI; they are:

  • Red 40
  • Yellow 5
  • Yellow 6

Red 3, another dye, has been acknowledged by the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) as a carcinogen. But it is still in the food supply, informs CSPI.

Manufacturers in the USA use approximately 15 million pounds of 8 synthetic dyes in foods. Since 1995 each American’s consumption of dyes has increased five-fold. Unfortunately, a significant proportion of these dyes are used in brightly colored cereals, drinks and candies – products aimed mainly at children.

Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI executive director, and co-author of the 58-page report, “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks”, said:

These synthetic chemicals do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, but trigger behavior problems in children and, possibly, cancer in anybody. The Food and Drug Administration should ban dyes, which would force industry to color foods with real food ingredients, not toxic petrochemicals.

CSPI informs that Blue 1, Red 40 and Yellow 6 (types of dyes) are also well known to cause allergic reactions in some individuals. Even though they are not common, the reactions can be serious.

Some dyes also cause hyperactivity in a significant number of children, CSPI says.

However, the link to cancer is the most worrying. In 1985, the FDA acting commissioner said that Red 3, a less commonly used dye “has clearly been shown to induce cancer” and was “of greatest public health concern.” John R. Block, Secretary of Agriculture, urged the US Department of Health and Human Services not to ban the dye – and it was not banned. According to CSPI, approximately 200,000 pounds of Red 3 is used in foods in the USA annually.

Laboratory animal tests on Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 have revealed signs of causing cancer, CSPI informs. Yellow 5 also caused mutations, an indication of possible carcinogenicity, in six of 11 tests.

James Huff, the associate director for chemical carcinogenesis at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ National Toxicology Program, said:

Dyes add no benefits whatsoever to foods, other than making them more ‘eye-catching’ to increase sales. CSPI’s scientifically detailed report on possible health effects of food dyes raises many questions about their safety. Some dyes have caused cancers in animals, contain cancer-causing contaminants, or have been inadequately tested for cancer or other problems. Their continued use presents unnecessary risks to humans, especially young children. It’s disappointing that the FDA has not addressed the toxic threat posed by food dyes.

CSPI charges that the FDA is not enforcing the law in several regards:

  • Red 3 and Citrus Red 2 should be banned under the Delaney amendment, because they caused cancer in rats (some uses were banned in 1990), as should Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which are tainted with cancer-causing contaminants.
  • Evidence suggests, though does not prove, that Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, and Yellow 6 cause cancer in animals. There certainly is not “convincing evidence” of safety.
  • Dyed foods should be considered adulterated under the law, because the dyes make a food “appear better or of greater value than it is” – typically by masking the absence of fruit, vegetable, or other more costly ingredient.

CSPI informs that the British government asked companies to phase out most dyes by last December 31, because of concerns about dyes’ impairment to childhood behavior. A warning notice on most dyed foods will be required by European Union countries by July 20th.

An example of where government’s can help protect children is with McDonald’s Strawberry Sundaes, which in Britain is colored with strawberries, while in the USA the same product has Red dye 40.

British Fanta (a soda) gets its bright orange color from pumpkin and carrot extract, while in the USA it comes from Red 40 and Yellow 6. Starburst Chews and Skittles, both Mars products, contain synthetic dyes in the United States, but not in Britain.

Now the FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand), as well as the US FDA are looking closely at the new findings.

Lydia Buchtman, from FSANZ, said:

We are currently assessing the data and if there is good scientific evidence, we can and will make changes.

“Food Dyes: Rainbow of Risks” (PDF)
Sarah Kobylewski, Michael F. Jacobson

Written by Christian Nordqvist