Artificially Rose-Colored Glasses: Why Does The U.S. Still Use Petroleum Food Dyes?

FD&C (“food, drug, and cosmetic”) dyes, or food colors, were originally made from coal tar, and are now made from petroleum.  Carcinogens like benzene (found in crude oil runoff) are strictly limited in our gasoline in the US, but we still use petroleum dyes contaminated with benzene in our FOOD.  Blue dye in your food is the same dye used in your blue jeans.  Side effects linked with food color consumption include hyperactivity, hives, bed-wetting, attention deficit disorder, eczema, sleep disruption, hypersensitivity, nerve damage, reproductive damage, cancer, obesity, diabetes, ear infections, asthma, headaches, chromosome mutation, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease (see Colorful Language for a list of health concerns by color).

We have access to plenty of scientific research – I’ve included a short list below (also checkout The Feingold Association and Food Dye Diaries for extensive lists).  We know that petroleum food dyes provide no nutritive value to the foods they taint.  And we know that major US food producers such as Kraft, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Mars Inc, and Wal-Mart are now making the same exact products without petroleum food colors in Europe.  So why the hell are we still using fake colors?

We are a cheap food culture.  Food manufacturers know that brighter colors trick our brains into thinking a food or drink is more nutritious.  FD&C food coloring costs less to make than natural food dyes, and manufacturers use their saved millions to advertize to the masses (especially kids).    I like to use coupons when possible…ever notice that your coupons are mostly for processed foods, and marketed towards kids?  I was perusing a grocery sale flier and noticed that only ONE out of 22 food items shown was a whole food.  And don’t look too closely at your school district’s food distributor, wouldn’t wanna upset yourself over those kickbacks the food manufacturers offer school food distributors for using their cheap, dye-laden junk.  This is a problem for all those Farm To School programs popping up all over the US.  No joke, soon you will be able to use food stamps at Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, and Long John Silvers.

Chemical food dyes have been around since the late 1800s.  It wasn’t until the late 1950s that people started seriously questioning their safety.  The Delaney Clause amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to prohibit additives shown to cause cancer in animals or humans.  And the work of the Feingold movement, which was started by Dr. Ben Feingold and gained popularity in the 1970s, publicized the ill affects of food coloring.  Sounds awesome, right?  Well, here we are in 2011, and the FDA STILL hasn’t seen fit to ban petroleum food coloring from our foods.  Violet 1 was banned in the early 1970s, only after CSPI pointed out that it’s carcinogenic.  Ironically, it was used in US Dept of Agriculture inspection stamps on meats (oops!).

I have so many questions.  At the very least – Products in the US must have an “artificially flavored” statement on the front of product packaging when it includes fake flavorings like Vanillin, so why not an “artificially colored” caveat?   We don’t know how combinations of dyes can affect people, and the FDA isn’t interested in studying it.  And another thing –  Did childhood and adult obesity, cancer, diabetes or ADD/ADHD rates in Europe change since governments asked companies to stop using fake dyes or label them as a cause of hyperactivity in children?

I don’t buy that we can’t afford to eat well.  There are ways to stay within budget while eating clean (check out this article entitled “How to stay a foodie family on food stamps“).  This holiday season, I compiled dozens of tips for eating clean on a budget from over thirty web sites in One Moveable Feast: Serve Up Organic Meals Without Blowing Your Budget. We have to be vigilant and vote with our dollars.  Buy only natural or organic products when you can.  Some conscientious companies are voluntarily removing petroleum dyes from their products, such as Starbucks and Frito-Lay.  Talk to friends and teachers about food dyes.  Contact your local representatives (try this sample letter for some ideas).


The Lancet 2007 study of food additives and hyperactivity in 3-year olds and 8/9-year olds (McCann, 2007)
CSPI manual “Rainbow Of Risks” says meta-analysis in 2004 shows a definite cause and effect between dyes and hyperactivity.
The Lancet study on caramel coloring.
British studies in the Daily Mail
Science Magazine

I ate lots of these as a kid. Now we have Fruitabu rolls.

One Response to “Artificially Rose-Colored Glasses: Why Does The U.S. Still Use Petroleum Food Dyes?”
  1. Marshall says:

    Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, and Long John Silvers? Those are all YUM! Brand foods. Formerly of PEPSICO fame. In the family I guess.

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