Some of the Truth Behind Artificial Food Coloring

It has been said that in taking great risk, one can reap an even greater reward. Most would assume we would be discussing an investment in the stock exchange or a bet at the high-stakes table. However, I am referring to the investment we make into the lives of our children. Parenthood is one of the most rewarding roles one can hold, yet it encompasses all the great challenges in life. Today, parents are faced with countless decisions for their children. The simplistic days of white or wheat are long gone. We are now learning how to decipher mysterious ingredient labels that are comprised of shelf-life stabilizers, genetically modified ingredients and artificial food dyes (to name a few). This complex world of food can confuse even the most seasoned parent. The most challenging aspect of these concerns is our division of understanding regarding the immediate and long-term health effects (especially in children). We have one camp pressing for more information and modification to our food supply and security, while the other assures us there is no cause for such investigation. In our world of intertwined corporate interests, it is difficult to draw a clear conclusion. From a parent’s perspective, it is clear there needs to be further investigation to disseminate the true risk from the biased sponsors marketing to our children with clever tools of deception. In this article or column we will focus on uncovering the research surrounding these issues, while emphasizing helpful “food tools and knowledge” for parents.
It is embedded into nature to be attracted to beautiful bright, vibrant color. Many animals choose their mate based on this trait alone. Most importantly, many mammals use this color indicator as a reference in choosing their next meal. What happens if our world of color is not of nature, but of artificial colors created in a lab (Green 1, Green 2, Red 1, Red 2, Red 3 -- still used in food, but no longer in cosmetics or external drugs -- Red 4, and Violet 1)? There are a few conclusions (among the many) that are being brought to the table of the social food community to investigate. Artificial colors mess with our intuitive senses. In nature our bodies know what berry to choose and what prey is poisonous. In our modern world of artificial ingredients, “poisonous” elements are hidden under the cover of frosting, crackers and even bread and pizza crusts. It would be expected to see food coloring in brightly colored icing. However, artificial coloring is being added to much more than our neon colored birthday cake. If we were to base our exposure on our sense of sight alone, we would unintentionally expose our bodies to these chemicals at a much higher level than we would anticipate.
“…artificial colors and flavors and synthetic sweeteners and novel fats confound the senses we rely on to assess new foods and prepare our bodies to deal with them. Foods that lie leave us with little choice but to eat by the numbers, consulting labels rather than our senses.” (In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, 2008).
They are made in a lab with chemicals derived from petroleum. Petroleum is a crude oil product. Other common uses for petroleum include gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt, and tar (to name a few). If these petroleum-based chemicals were not hidden beneath the shield of a bright red M&M or, as mentioned earlier, in the crust of our Sunday night pizza, you certainly would not consume them. One argument made regarding the safety of these chemical additives in our food is that the amount is minuscule in comparison to that of non-consumable products like gasoline, diesel fuel, and asphalt (clearly). However, it is important to draw attention to our levels of consumption. The FDA has approved each product individually to contain the appropriate levels of food coloring. If we are consuming multiple products at all different quantities (internally and externally), how can we be sure of what the appropriate consumption level would be for each individual product (which is all that is approved by the FDA)? The answer is that we cannot. There are too many variables. America is obese and artificial colors are contributing to this obesity epidemic through the mouths of our children. Children (more than adults) are attracted to the “neon lights” (if you will) of highly processed food. Instead of eating fresh, whole foods like fruits, whole grains, and vegetables, America is eating processed cheese product, sugary punches and processed boxed dinners. Our bodies are being fooled into thinking these products are ok to eat because they are aesthetically pleasing. It is now imperative to use our eyes to investigate the food labels we are consuming. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does make the following statement of caution regarding artificial coloring in foods:
“Exposure to food and food components, including AFC [artificial food colors] and preservatives, may be associated with behavioral changes, not necessarily related to hyperactivity, in certain susceptible children with ADHD and other problem behaviors, and possibly in susceptible children from the general population.” (
The important question still stands. How much is too much? Who are the “susceptible” children? Couldn’t it be said that all children would be considered susceptible given the nature of the color additives and the intent that they will attract children to the product? It is evident there is a need for the awareness of the ingredients in our food, especially in our children’s foods, as it is clear they are more susceptible. As this awareness grows, so will the growth toward change. The United Kingdom currently requires a warning label on any products that contain the chemical based color agents. Companies began to change their products to include the natural color agents (annatto and paprika extract) in order to avoid the negative association the warning label gave to consumers. The same companies are still using artificial coloring in the same products marketed to the United States. As consumers we hold the right to drive this change through the knowledge we have for the products we consume. The children of today are our leaders of tomorrow.   Images courtesy of: Wikipedia -- Vox Efx --  Donald Pettit  

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