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CSPI Says Food Dyes Pose Rainbow of Risks: Cancer, Hyperactivity, Allergic Reactions

WASHINGTON - Food dyes—used in everything from M&Ms to Manischewitz Matzo
Balls to Kraft salad dressings—pose risks of cancer, hyperactivity in
children, and allergies, and should be banned, according to a new report by the Center for Science in the Public
Interest. A top government scientist agrees, and says that food dyes
present unnecessary risks to the public.

The three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and
Yellow 6, are contaminated with known
, says CSPI. Another dye, Red 3, has been acknowledged
for years by the Food and Drug Administration to be a carcinogen, yet is
still in the food supply.

Despite those concerns, each year manufacturers pour
about 15 million pounds of eight synthetic dyes into
our foods
. Per capita consumption of dyes has increased five-fold
since 1955, thanks in part to the proliferation of brightly colored
breakfast cereals, fruit drinks, and candies pitched to children.

“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,” said CSPI
executive director Michael F. Jacobson, co-author of the 58-page report,
“Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.” “The Food and Drug Administration
should ban
, which would force industry to color foods with real food
ingredients, not toxic petrochemicals.”

Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 have long been
known to cause allergic reactions in some people. CSPI says that while
those reactions are not common, they can be serious and provide reason
enough to ban those dyes. Furthermore, numerous studies have
demonstrated that dyes cause hyperactivity
in children.

But the biggest concern is cancer. Back in 1985, the
acting commissioner of the FDA said that Red 3, one of the lesser-used
dyes, “has clearly been shown to induce cancer” and was “of greatest
public health concern.” However, Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block
pressed the Department of Health and Human Services not to ban the dye,
and he apparently prevailed—notwithstanding the Delaney Amendment that
forbids the use of in foods of cancer-causing color additives. Each
year about 200,000 pounds of Red 3 are poured into such foods as Betty
Crocker’s Fruit Roll-Ups and ConAgra’s Kid Cuisine frozen meals. Since
1985 more than five million pounds of the dye have been used.

Tests on lab animals of Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40,
Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 showed signs of causing cancer or suffered from
serious flaws, said the consumer group. Yellow 5 also caused mutations,
an indication of possible carcinogenicity, in six of 11 tests.

In addition, according to the report, FDA tests show that
the three most-widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are
tainted with low levels of cancer-causing compounds, including benzidine
and 4-aminobiphenyl in Yellow 5. However, the levels actually could be
far higher, because in the 1990s the FDA and Health Canada found a
hundred times as much benzidine in a bound form that is released in the
colon, but not detected in the routine tests of purity conducted by the

“Dyes add no benefits whatsoever to foods, other than
making them more ‘eye-catching’ to increase sales,” said James Huff, the
associate director for chemical carcinogenesis at the National
Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ National Toxicology Program.
“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.”

report notes that FDA’s regulations mandate a stricter standard of
safety for color additives than other food additives, saying that there
must be “convincing evidence that establishes with reasonable certainty
that no harm will result from the intended use of the color additive.”
The standard of “convincing evidence” does not apply to preservatives,
emulsifiers, and other additives.

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.

In a letter sent today, CSPI urged the FDA to ban all dyes
because the scientific studies do not provide convincing evidence of
safety, but do provide significant evidence of harm.

A ninth dye, Orange B, is approved for coloring sausage
casings, but in 1978 the FDA proposed banning it because it was found to
be toxic to rats. The industry has not used Orange B in more than a
decade. Also, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has
labeled Citrus Red 2 a carcinogen, and the FAO/WHO Expert Committee on
Food Additives said “this color should not be used as a food additive.”
However, it poses little risk because it is approved only for coloring
the skins of oranges.

Because of concerns about dyes’ impairment of children’s
behavior, the British government asked companies to phase out most
dyes by last December 31, and the European Union is requiring, beginning on July 20, a
warning notice on most dyed foods. CSPI predicted that the label
notice—“may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in
children”—likely will be the death knell for dyes in all of Europe.

The greater government oversight and public concern
across the Atlantic results in McDonald’s Strawberry Sundae in Britain
being colored with strawberries, but in the United States with Red dye
40. Likewise, the British version of Fanta orange soda gets its bright
color from pumpkin and carrot extract, but in the United States the
color 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.

Fortunately, says CSPI, many natural colorings are
available to replace dyes. Beet juice, beta-carotene, blueberry juice
concentrate, carrot juice, grape skin extract, paprika, purple sweet
potato or corn, red cabbage, and turmeric are some of the substances
that provide a vivid spectrum of colors. However, CSPI warns that
“natural” does not always mean safe. Carmine
and cochineal
—colorings obtained from a bright red insect—can cause
rare, but severe, anaphylactic reactions. Annatto, too, can cause
allergic reactions.

“Food Dyes: Rainbow of Risks” was written by Sarah
Kobylewski, a Ph.D. candidate in the Molecular Toxicology Program at the
University of California, Los Angeles, and Michael F. Jacobson,
executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Jacobson is author of Eater’s Digest: The Consumer’s Factbook of
Food Additives
(Doubleday, 1972).


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