As far back as the mid-1970s, there has been a movement to educate the public on the risks associated with ingesting artificial colorants that have been routinely added to food since the 1950s. These voices, raised primarily by scientific researchers concerned about petroleum and coal based chemicals that were in growing supply after World War II and insinuated into the developing processed food industry, have largely been stifled by the big corporations that profit from the chemicals and government agencies that either do not have the power to regulate or, more likely, are simply beholden to large corporate interests rather than the interests of actual citizens.
When allergy specialist Ben Feingold found that his patients improved after changing their diets to remove artificial food coloring back in the 1970s, it became clear to him that there were chemical causes affecting children’s behavior.
Many artificial colors and flavors, along with adhesives and insecticides, are derived from coal tar, itself a known carcinogen and number 118 on the 2007 CERCLA Priority List of Hazardous Substances according to the Center for Disease Control and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Colors (FD and C) approved by the FDA for use in food preparation include pigments that are bonded with a form of aluminum or calcium to make them insoluble. Anything with aluminum (number 187 on the CERCLA Priority List of Hazardous Substances) that is absorbed into the digestive system or through the skin poses potential risks from serious organ disorders to mineralization of the bones and even possibly encouraging Alzheimer’s disease at it collects in the brain.
While there is little evidence that the artificial colors in common use today will be able to kill a human at even 100 times their permissible levels, it is clear that many of these chemicals may still cause harm in large sections of the population. (Congress defines safe as “reasonable certainty that no harm will result from use…” And many harmful substances are allowed, but only at 1/100th of the amount that is considered harmful.) Even at these greatly reduced levels, however, it is possible to reach a harmful level of exposure through consumption.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) claims that studies suggest health risks for several of the nine approved artificial colors found in foods processed in the United States. The CSPI also notes that none of the dyes has yet been proven safe. In the article “Group Calls for Ban on Artificial Food Dyes” by Daniel J. DeNoon and Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD for the WebMD Health News it states that clinical studies from 1980 onward have associated behavioral problems in children with food dyes.
While tests on animals continue to imply a link between dyes and cancer, and a number of dyes are derived from known carcinogens, it is the effect on children that caused the 2008 regulation in the European Union requiring warning labels on foods that contain six artificial colors commonly in use.
Many scientists believe that Blue 1, Blue 2, and Green 3 may cause cancer in lab animals. There is also concern about Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Red 40, which are not only the most common but are also contaminated with known carcinogens, as reported in The San Francisco Gate article, “Should Food Dyes Be Banned?: The Thin Green Line”. The article goes on to state “The granddaddy of them all, Red 3, is recognized by the Food and Drug Administration as a carcinogen. The law requires it to be illegal, but pressure from Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Agriculture, John R. Block, scuttled the required ban. About 200,000 pounds annually of Red 3 go into foods” that are marketed toward children.
Consumer Affairs Correspondent Martin Hickman reports in his April 5, 2008 article, “Food additives ‘could be as damaging as lead in petrol'” in The Independent about Southampton University Professor Jim Stevenson and his colleagues, who carried out an official study into seven additives for the Food Standards Agency (FSA). “The position in relation to AFCs [Artificial Food Colours] is analogous to the state of knowledge about lead and IQ that was being evaluated in the early 1980s,” wrote Stevenson with regard to their study. “…the difference in IQ between high and low lead groups was 5.5 IQ points … very close to the sizes obtained in our study of food additives.”
The FDA states on its website that there are a number of reasons colors are added to food products. These include offsetting color loss from processing and storgage, providing uniform color as opposed to natural variations, “enhancing” natural colors, and “to provide color” to “fun” foods that would otherwise lack their festive hue. The FDA claims that “color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.”
Colors are classified as either subject to certification or exempt from certification. The FDA exempts pigments with vegetable, mineral or animal origin – in other words, those derived from nature. Such pigments may impart flavors of their own, though they tend to be very mild.
Those colors that are created artificially must be certified. Such chemical derivatives are popular because they are intense, uniform, generally tasteless and cheap. Only nine color additives are certified for use in the United States.
History of Artificial Food Coloring
Studies have found that petroleum based chemicals, including artificial food coloring, can harm child behavior and development.
The chemical industry was growing rapidly following WWII. Seeking new markets for the byproducts of petroleum, the industry reached out to the food industry which was seen as an expanding source of income. By adding petroleum based ingredients to the nation’s food supply, the chemical industry convinced the food industry, processed foods would be produced less expensively with more convenience and a longer shelf life. However, back in the 1950s, there was virtually no government oversight with regard to consumer safety.
A product was deemed “safe” based on the amount of any given chemical required to kill half of the animals in a test group – data which then had to be extrapolated to humans. With no known science at the time to measure how chemicals affected behavior or brain function, absolutely no data existed with regard to what is now known as “behavioral toxicology.”
Neither the Food and Drug Administration, nor the Environmental Protection Agency require specific and detailed testing regarding the effects on neurological processes by the chemicals allowed in processed foods.
Sources and Further Reading
http://www.fda.gov/food/foodingredientspackaging/ucm094211.htm http://leda.law.harvard.edu/leda/data/758/Burrows06_redacted.pdf http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2008/06/24/12-food-additives-to-avoid.aspx The Boston Globe Bloomberg News http://hubpages.com/hub/GUIDE-TO-ARTIFICIAL-FOOD-COLORINGS http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3742423.stm http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12160896 http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/medeff/advisories-avis/prof/_2003/food_dye-colorant_nth-ah-eng.php http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9168006 http://actiononadditives.com/ http://fooddemocracy.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/food-additives-demystified/ http://www.healthy-eating-politics.com/food-additives.html