Seeing red – Exposing the many dangers associated with artificial food colourants


By: Richard Sutton

Our environment and food chain have never been more corrupted, containing thousands of pollutants that are toxic to the brain, impacting learning, memory, mood, and cognition. While organophosphate pesticides, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), combustion-related air pollutants, lead, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, and phthalates are receiving tremendous attention from newly emerging environmental health groups like TENDR[1], there should be equal concern for our on-going exposure to artificial food chemicals.

Artificial food colourants (dyes) have been a controversial additive for many decades. They are found in thousands of food products ranging from ‘health foods’ like vitamins, supplements, fish (farmed), meats, and cheeses, as well as the more obvious brightly coloured foods such as cakes, sweets, beverages, sports drinks, and even chewing gum.

From a psychological perspective, artificial colourants tap deep into our subconscious attraction to a group of compounds known as phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are non-nutritive plant chemicals that have unparalleled protective, disease prevention, and health promotion properties. These natural compounds are what give many plants their distinctive colour, smell, and taste. The more colourful the fruit or vegetable, the greater the concentration and diversity of phytonutrients, which is possibly why children are intrinsically attracted to brightly coloured foods.

In addition, according to a 2008 study by a team of researchers at Stanford University, colourful plant-based foods (vegetables and fruits) contain more than 100 000 disease-preventing nutrients, which include phytochemicals, bioflavonoids, and carotenoids. Interestingly, up to 40% of prescription drugs are actually derived from plants.

While artificial colourants capture this intrinsic search for health promotion and vitality, they offer none of the benefits. Rather, forty years of double-blind studies has reliably shown that they are associated with an array of sinister side effects that range from neurological toxicity to genetic damage and even increase the risk of developing certain cancers. Food dyes are complex chemicals that were originally derived from coal tar, but more recently from petroleum. They are used to enhance products that naturally would not have colour or those products that lose colour during processing and storage. Food manufacturers generally prefer artificial colourants to natural alternatives because they are cheaper, more stable, and considerably brighter.

According to Dr Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), food dye consumption per person has increased five-fold in the US since 1955, with three dyes – Red 40 (E129/Allura Red), Yellow 5 (E102/Tartrazine), and Yellow 6 (E110/Sunset Yellow) accounting for 90% of the colourants used in foods. This is a clear reflection of our growing appetite for processed and aesthetically alluring foods. In addition, food colourants contain significant concentrations of several known carcinogens. In a report on the summary of the literature by the CSPI, dyes were shown to contain a cocktail of harmful chemicals including benzidene, which has been strongly linked to bladder and pancreatic cancers. This compound is so toxic that the dyes containing it are now on the Environmental Protection Agencies list of ‘Chemicals of Concern’.

Another area where artificial food colourants have been receiving a lot of attention is in the cognitive and behavioural space. The notion that food allergies or hypersensitivities lead to behavioural and learning issues dates back to the 1970s, when Dr Benjamin Feingold presented an article at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association proposing that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), paediatric hyperactivity, and learning problems were due to certain foods and food additives. In 2015, the journal Pediatrics published an extensive analysis of 175 research studies on the global prevalence of ADHD in children aged 18 and under, finding an overall pooled estimate of 7,2%. According to a recent report by Dr Patricia Pastor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of ADHD diagnosis has increased by well over 30% in the last 15 years. The same report found that 11,8% of US children aged 12-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD.

The American Journal of Psychiatry reported the prevalence of adult ADHD in the US is well over 4,4% (14 million adults) and rising. Twenty years after Dr Feingold first suggested that artificial additives affect cognition and behaviour, paediatrician Dr Marvin Boris published a study in the Annals of Allergy, which showed that 73% of adolescents diagnosed with ADHD responded favourably to an elimination diet that included removing artificial colours. A decade later, even stronger evidence emerged between the consumption of artificial colourants and the exacerbation of ADHD symptoms through an extensive analysis of the literature by a team of researchers at Colombia University. The analysis involved 15 trials and concluded that there is accumulating evidence that neurobehavioral toxicity may be associated with a variety of widely distributed chemicals including artificial food dyes. According to its authors, artificial colourants ‘promote hyperactivity in hyperactive children, as measured on behavioural rating scales’ and ‘society should engage in a broader discussion about whether the aesthetic and commercial rationale for the use of artificial food colourings is justified’.

The real change in scientific, governmental, and public sentiment came from two English studies on cross-sections of British children. The studies found that mixtures of dyes (and a food preservative, sodium benzoate) impaired the behaviour and cognition of non-hyperactive children of various ages. An independent scientific committee reviewing the data concluded that ‘the results of this study are consistent with, and add weight to, previous published reports of behavioural changes occurring in children following consumption of particular food additives’.

As a result, the British government instructed the food industry to eliminate six artificial food colourants by the end of 2009. Additionally, the European Parliament passed a law that will require a warning notice on all foods containing one or more of these dyes. Counter arguments within the medical community do exist and are strongly related to the level of exposure. Many of those with opposing views argue that the amount of artificial colourants in our food chain are not enough to cause a significant reaction within the context of negative behavioural and cognitive outcomes.

According to Laura Stevens from Purdue University, the majority of the studies in the 1970s and 1980s were conducted by giving children 26mg or less of a single or a combination of food dyes. At these levels, only some children reacted negatively, creating inconstant findings and a general apathy amongst medical professionals. Having said this, the ground-breaking Southampton study used only 20-30mg of artificial colourants in the trial.

Where the medical community does find common ground is the fact that larger food dye exposures are associated with more defined neurobiological compromise. For example, the journal Science published a study that reported that 85% of children reacted to 100-150mg of an artificial food dye mix as reflected by compromised learning potential.

Exposure to these levels was thought to be practically impossible, however, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, children can easily consume 100mg of colourants in a day and some children are consuming in excess of 200mg! Hardly surprising when considering that some breakfast cereals contain over 41mg per serving, some cakes over 55mg per serving, and many sweets in excess of 33mg per serving. As little as 250ml of a popular orange sports drink contains 22mg of toxic colourants. According to Lisa Leffet, a senior scientist for the CSPI: “We estimate, using information cited by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the meta-analysis sponsored by the food industry, that, conservatively, more than half a million children in the United States suffer adverse behavioural reactions from food dyes, with an estimated cost exceeding $5 billion per year — an entirely preventable cost. Removing dyes from the food supply is one of the few public health measures that could be deployed to reduce behavioural problems in children.”

In a world with ever-growing demands and high expectations, we can ill afford to expose our families and ourselves to any element that can detract from our achieving our full potential. Based on the current body of evidence, the elimination of artificial colourants and other chemical food additives can be advantageous to health and performance outcomes.

Practical tips:

  • If a food is abnormally brightly coloured – avoid it
  • Always check food labels for ‘artificial colourants’
  • Avoid E-codes (on food packaging) ranging from E102-143. Consider that sometimes artificial colourants will be labelled as blue 1, blue 2, green 3, red 40, yellow 5, and so on
  • Avoid processed foods, beverages, chewing gums, confectionaries, and sweets unless natural colour alternatives are specified
  • Consider that many ‘health foods’ and/or ‘healthier food options’ contain artificial dyes. Some of these include popular vitamins, nutritional supplements, yogurts, farmed fish, and even wasabi paste
  • Always opt for natural and fresh ingredients

For more on this and other health topics go to:

  1. A collaboration of leading scientists and health professionals who have linked toxic environmental chemicals to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficits, hyperactivity, intellectual disability, and learning disorders

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