Did your kids have a hyper holiday? Why those vibrantly colored treats need a warning label

Terry Hyland, Communications Manager

Many parents have experienced that foreboding sense of what might come next as they watch their child indulge in a decadent treat at a holiday gathering or birthday party. All that sugar means things are about to get a little crazy, right?

While sugar has its own issues, perhaps the source of that burst of hyperactivity is another ingredient: the synthetic dyes that brighten many of our sweet treats, and many of the not-so-sweet ones too.

Last year, California government scientists at the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) released a report finding that commonly used synthetic food dyes can lead to hyperactivity and other neurobehavioral problems in children, with some reacting very strongly to relatively small amounts of colorants. Children’s exposure is also higher compared to adults.

That stands to reason. According to OEHHA, the most common food items associated with food dye exposures include icings, fruit-flavored and juice drinks, sodas, and breakfast cereals. And it is not only the more than 6 million children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) that may be particularly sensitive to synthetic dyes; kids without pre-existing behavioral disorders can also be affected.

Synthetic dyes, unlike colorings derived from natural sources, are subjected to a process known as batch certification, where a representative sample of the color batch is submitted to the FDA for testing. The agency determined decades ago that seven types of synthetic dyes were safe, certifying them with names like Red No. 40 and Yellow No. 5 that are common ingredients in today’s cereals, beverages, confections, and more.

What those names do not reveal is the chemical makeup of these certified color additives. Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, the most commonly used synthetic dyes, are azo dyes, often derived from coal tars or oil. Other synthetic food dyes are chemically classified as xanthene, triphenylmethane, and indigoid dyes.

And while food labels must disclose the use of these color additives, companies in the U.S. are not required to warn consumers that the chemicals can lead to neurobehavioral effects in children. This must change.

Warning label needed

In 2015, several leading food companies in the U.S. committed to reformulating their products and removing artificial colors. And while a number of those companies took significant steps to move away from the artificial additives, many companies quietly passed by their deadlines for switching to substances derived from natural sources.

The reason? The synthetic dyes are a less expensive way to add consistent, vibrant, and more varied colors that appeal to consumers. At the same time, consumers in the U.S. often are not aware of the effects these synthetic dyes can have on children.

An adequate warning is needed to let parents know whether the foods they purchase could lead to adverse effects in their children.

In the European Union, for example, since 2010 most foods containing synthetic dyes have had to display a warning label declaring the potential adverse effects on children.

In 2011, a Food Advisory Committee (FAC) convened by FDA narrowly voted (8 to 6) against the need for warning labels in the US, but said more study of the issue was needed. All but one member of the committee concluded that additional research was needed to better understand “whether, and under what conditions, the continued use of these certified color additives is safe.”

In 2016, the FDA published an exposure assessment of synthetic food dyes, addressing in part the FAC’s request for more study. The assessment concluded that all children are exposed to certain synthetic food dyes, and that breakfast cereals, juice and soft drinks, and frozen dairy and sherbet desserts were the major contributing food categories for exposure to multiple color additives.

Yet today there still is no warning label requirement in the US. FDA generally does not even limit the amount of synthetic dyes that can be added to food, leaving it to manufacturer to decide how much colorant is needed. According to FDA’s regulations, however, a color additive is not safe unless there is “convincing evidence that establishes with reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the intended use.”

As OEHHA’s recent scientific evaluation makes clear, it’s past time to follow the European Union’s lead and start warning parents about protecting children from exposures that may exacerbate behavioral problems. EDF has been calling on FDA to take action for more than five years. FDA needs to require companies to warn consumers about the harmful effects of synthetic dyes in the foods they make and sell.

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