Artificial Food Colorings Come Under Scrutiny by Federal Government

Filed under: Nutrition: Health, In The News

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If your kids seem to bounce off the walls after their morning bowl of cereal, you may want to take a look at the side of the box and see if artificial food colorings are listed in the ingredients.

The subject of artificial food colorings has been a source of controversy in the U.S. since the 1970s, when pediatrician Benjamin Feingold first insisted there was a link between the colorings and behavioral or health problems, like hyperactivity, in children.

But after ruling years ago that the connection couldn't be proved, the Food and Drug Administration has now publicly convened a panel of experts to re-examine the evidence and advise if a change in policy is needed -- like the addition of warning labels on packaged foods that contain the ingredients, The New York Times reports.

This week's FDA hearing is seen as a victory for consumer advocacy groups, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which in 2008 asked the FDA to ban eight of the nine food colorings certified for use in the U.S. It also points to the fact that the mounting body of evidence about the colorings -- like a study published in The Lancet medical journal in 2007 -- has at least caught the agency's attention, the Times reports.

In their recent report on the issue, the FDA's scientists concluded that a "causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established."

However, they did note that the condition of "certain susceptible children" with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be exacerbated by exposure to "a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives."

Renee Shutters, a mother of two from Jamestown, N.Y., tells the Times that two years ago her then 5-year-old son Trenton was having serious behavioral problems at school until she cut artificial food colorings out of his diet.

"I know for sure I found the root cause of this one because you can turn it on and off like a switch," Shutters tells the newspaper.

But not everyone is convinced.

Dr. Lawrence Diller, a behavioral pediatrician in Walnut Creek, Calif., tells the Times that there is very little, if any, proof that diet plays a significant role in most childhood behavioral disorders.

"These are urban legends that won't die," Diller says.

But the CPSI contends that even if the colorings only affect "susceptible children," there are many parents who don't know their kids are at risk -- and so the FDA should "remove those dangerous and unnecessary substances from the food supply."

Many of the artificial food colorings certified for use today were originally approved by the FDA in 1931, including Blue No. 1, Yellow No. 5 and Red No. 3. But, though these dyes were originally made from coal tar, these days they're made from petroleum products, the Times reports.

Over the years, there has been some movement on the part of the federal government to ensure the safety of the colorings, and some have been banned over the years; like Orange No. 1, which was found to be toxic in the 1950s, and Red. No. 2, which was thought to be carcinogenic and banned in 1976, reports the Times.

But the FDA suggests that issues surrounding artificial food colorings might be most similar to a peanut allergy, according to the newspaper. In which case, the FDA is covered, since the agency already requires manufacturers to list artificial colorings on food labels, as it does with peanuts.

Yet, the FDA is not asking the current panel of experts to consider banning artificial food colorings altogether, only to assess the credibility of the existing research and make policy recommendations. Ultimately, the panel will likely suggest that more research be conducted; however, since research on children is difficult to undertake, the newspaper notes that this recommendation will probably be ignored.

Artificial dyes can be found in many foods targeted to children, including Jell-O, Lucky Charms, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Cheetos snacks and Hostess Twinkies. The Times reports that some grocery stores, such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's, will not sell foods made with artificial food colorings.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.