Estimates are that Americans today consume 5 times as much food dye as we did 60 years ago. This is not surprising given the subsequent increase during those years in both the production and consumption of processed foods. In addition to their inclusion in foods, synthetic food dyes can be found in a wide range of personal care and household products, such as vitamins, cough syrup, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, laundry detergent and chapstick, to name just a few.
Food dyes are synthetic chemicals derived from coal tar and petroleum that are used for the purpose of improving and/or maintaining the appearance of food by adding, enhancing or preventing loss of color. This is to say that dyes do not play any role in improving the safety of food, or boosting its nutritional quality, but are strictly utilized for their aesthetic affect. Meanwhile, the safety of these dyes has been a point of debate for decades. With growing concern that the chemicals in all 9 FDA-approved artificial food dyes show links to a number of potential health problems, scientists who have studied these dyes are beginning to suggest their elimination from the food supply, or at the very least a requirement that foods containing the dyes be labeled with a warning about their potential risks and ramifications. Such measures have already been taken in Europe, following a 2007 study by the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency that showed a seeming link between hyperactive behavior in children and the consumption of food containing artificial colors. As a result, many major US food companies who continue to use artificial colors in America, have shifted production to provide dye-free or naturally-colored versions of the same products in Europe. Which begs the question- why not make those changes across the board? Unlike the European Union, which bases its health protection policies on a “precautionary principle,” the U.S. government requires extensive proof of harm prior to taking regulatory action.
So, while our government is unlikely to step in to halt the use of artificial colors in the food supply any time soon, the scientific research that is available seems to suggest that informed consumers should consider making personal purchasing choices that limit or avoid foods containing artificial dyes.