The Risky Rainbow


A few summers ago, my friend’s son David was selling lemonade for charity. I took my oldest boy Jack, then four, into town to contribute to the cause. Now I must preface this by saying that Jack has been in the kitchen with me since he was old enough to sit in a high chair and I have been talking to him about it as well—the good, the bad and the ugly (the rated PG version though).

As we pull up we noticed that not only is David selling lemonade but he is also drinking red Gatorade. Well, Jack took one look at him, put his little hands on his hips and said, “That drink has red dye no. 40 in it and if you drink it you will get sick.” David, who is four years older than Jack, had fear in his eyes, “What is red dye no. 40?” Jack turned to me, “Take it from here mom.” I was so proud of my little nutrition know-it-all!

What They Are

Dyes are complex organic chemicals that were originally derived from coal tar, but now from petroleum. They have been favored over natural colorings like paprika or beet juice because they are cheaper, more stable and brighter.

Over the years, many dyes have been banned because of their adverse effects on laboratory animals. Today there are nine dyes approved for use in food, drugs and cosmetics: (1) FD&C Blue No. 1; (2) FD&C Blue No. 2; (3) Citrus Red No. 2; (4) FD&C Green No. 3; (5) Orange B; (6) FD&C Red No. 3; (7) FD&C Red No. 40; (8) FD&C Yellow No. 5; (9) FD&C Yellow No. 6.

Unlike other food additives, dyes are not permitted for use unless the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has tested and certified that each batch meets legal specifications. Just three of the nine dyes—Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, and Yellow No. 6—account for 90 percent of all dyes used! American’s have come to rely on the rainbow of colors in foods such as soda, cereals, snacks, baked goods, frozen foods and condiments. Do you know that most jarred pickles have Yellow No. 5 in them? Do pickles really need to be dyed yellow? There are plenty on the market that do just fine without the neon. U.S. consumption of food dye has increased five-fold since 1955. Pretty freaky scary if you ask me!

This rainbow of colors comes with a significant rainbow of risks—enough that in Europe, McDonalds strawberry sundae gets its color from strawberries but in the United States, it gets its color from Red Dye No. 40. Go figure…

Why are They Bad

With incredible controversy including the notions that food dyes trigger allergies, cause hyper activity in children and even cancer, in 2008 The European Food Safety Authority required that all foods containing dyes have warning labels. In fact, the labels alone prompted many corporations to re-think how they were making their food. But not in this country!

When a foodstuff is being tested for safety, it should be done in long-term animal feeding studies conducted by a third party (meaning not the company or any of its subsidiaries that made the darn poison in the first place). According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s extensive report on food dyes released in 2009, there is plenty to concern your self with when it comes to these rainbow reapers:

Carcinogenicity (causing cancer)

Interestingly, dyes are not pure chemicals—they contain roughly 10 percent impurities (found in the chemicals from which they are made). I am talking about stuff that we can’t even pronounce and stuff that is clearly cancer causing (like 4-aminobiphenyl). While the FDA has established legal limits for these contaminants and those limits are supposed to ensure that these artificial colors will ONLY cause cancer in one in one million people (that is one too many as far as I am concerned), these tolerances were based on dye usage in 1990. Since then, usage has increased by roughly 50 percent (as mentioned above). Oops! In addition, the FDA never considered the risk to children who not only consume more dye per unit of body weight than adults but also are more sensitive to carcinogens. And, this may be a tough one to get your head around, but the safety of these impurities was evaluated based on individual impurities alone (as in one chemical at a time) rather than bound substances (as in two or more chemicals “glued” together) and as it turns out, these bound bandits just add insult to injury—they have higher cancer causing properties than the individual impurities. The FDA, by law of the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act is required to consider the “cumulative effect” of additives on our health but sadly it seems that they didn’t consider some very important data that leaves American’s consuming far more dye than the one in one million standard.

Genotoxicity (causing gene mutations or damage)

Think of your body as a house. All houses start with a blue print. And the blue print for all living organisms, including you, is your DNA. From these information molecules, your genes—a carefully coded copy of a small part of your DNA—are made. For the purpose of the house analogy, let’s look at these genes as very specific instructions on how your house is being built, from where the rooms go to the color of the walls.

Certain chemicals can cause mutations or damage to your DNA, thus your genes (remember, they are that coded copy of specific instructions on how to build your house). When damage occurs, problems with your “house” ensue. And the end result is a not so stable, and perhaps slightly injurious house. How does this translate to your body? If your body is injured at the gene level, your cells (the “building blocks” that make up your body) can be abnormal. And “abnormal” cells are at the root of many cancers today.

So what do dyes have to do with genes? When studying, through science, the safety of a foodstuff, several animal studies need to be conducted. To determine the safety of an ingredient, ideally all studies (or most) should come back negative—meaning that the chemical being tested is safe. Let’s take Yellow No. 5 as an example—out of the eleven studies conducted on this dye’s safety, six of the studies came back showing concerning genotoxicity. That’s pretty alarming to me considering that Yellow No. 5 is the second most widely used dye found in everything from pickles to pastries.

Neurotoxicity (causing neurological damage)

While there is no hard evidence that dyes cause neurological damage, I would be remiss to not mention the incredible work of Dr. Benjamin Feingold. He was a pediatric allergist from California who, in 1973, proposed that certain food additives, including food dyes, cause hyperactivity in children (and even adults). He created the Feingold Diet—a food elimination program that removes dyes among a number of other artificial ingredients from a person’s diet. Mainstream medical wisdom dismissed his work stating that it lacked scientific evidence. There was quite a bit of publicity generated as a result of Feingold’s findings that it prompted many scientists to study the cause and affect relationship between food dyes and hyperactivity. And in 2004, a study by Schab and Trinh concluded that dyes promote hyperactivity in “hyperactive” children and that a broader discussion about the aesthetic and commercial rational for the use of food dyes is justified.

Interestingly enough, the European Parliament recently passed a law that requires a warning label stating that, “Dyed food may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” But the United States continues to allow artificial colors to be pumped into your food without any warning at all.

However, over the years his “hypothesis” has been revered among the integrative medical community, children and adults as many people living with ADHD as well as a number of other behavioral, physical and neurological concerns have improved greatly after removing dyes and other toxic substances from their diets.

The Better Alternatives

So back to my son and David. Turns out that David no longer drinks red Gatorade thanks to Jack—my four year old not only educated a kid twice his age but also his grown-up!

America, we have other choices and I am here to tell you what they are and how to integrate them into your life in a practical manner. Cause if I don’t, I can assure you that my son Jack will—and he doesn’t have the credentials or the experience that I have!

So choose foods without dyes (you now know what to look out for). Believe it or not, everything from Froot Loops to Fun Dip has a “not-so-evil” twin. And they are colored with natural dyes derived from fruits and vegetables. In fact, you can even buy natural food color though more costly and not widely available in stores (but surely on the Internet) to color your cookies and cakes. As for Gatorade, there is now a dye-free version if you are so inclined to indulge. You can also opt for other naturally colored sports drinks or even my favorite electrolyte packed bevy—coconut water. Oh, and if you are the sort to color your kids eggs as in Green Eggs and Ham, purée a little spinach and you’ve got your green (plus some extra nutrition)!