The Food Coloring Story That Put Me Off My Baklava

I couldn’t wait for the monthly “Winners And Losers Of Food Coloring” roundup to comment on this recent food coloring buzz. It actually grossed me out enough to make me turn my nose up at my own homemade baklava (for one day).

So apparently, some bee keepers in the Alsace region of France noticed in August that their bees were not returning to hives with the usual yellow pollen-dusted legs. Instead, they were sporting a fresh new color palette for Fall.  Their honeycombs began to look like those make-your-own sun catcher craft kits.  And their honey looked like something out of the wall paint samples in a Pottery Barn catalog.

My friend Sara shared this article with me about bees mysteriously making blue, green and red honey. The image of the multi-colored honey comb alone gave me the shivers.  I was so hoping this was a hoax…

The beekeepers discovered that their charges were feasting on open waste from a nearby Mars factory in Strasbourg.  The Mars company manufactures brightly dyed M&Ms candy.


After the heebie-jeebies subsided, I immediately thought of the health of those bees and the local ecosystem, and subsequently, the humans who depend on this balance.

If you’ve been reading my blog then you’re well aware that traditional “food coloring” is derived from petroleum, like your car’s gasoline.  Some of us are highly sensitive to petroleum-based dyes, preservatives, fragrances, and such.  Many of us react quickly with anaphylactic shock, breathing problems, headaches, stomach aches, mood swings, loss of focus, inattention, hives, vomiting, anxiety, insomnia, aggression, panic attacks, hyperactivity, and loss of impulse control.  This can be a very scary feeling.  I know this first-hand.  

I call us the “canaries in the coal mine” for the rest of you lucky non-reactive folks.  But you need to educate yourself about this too.  


Traditional food coloring contains heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, and lead, plus synthetic petroleum-based preservatives.  It’s linked to a long list of health and behavior problems.   You probably know that Red dye #40 in mom’s yogurts, the kids’ NutriGrain bars, and Grandma’s “diabetic” sugar-free jelly is linked to aggression and hyperactivity in children and adults.  You may or may not know that Red dye #3 in your kids’ fruit roll-ups, vitamins, sausages, cherries and sweets is also a pesticide used to kill fly eggs…and is a possible trigger for breast and thyroid cancer cell growth (which is why I hate pink dyed “foods” being emblazoned with breast cancer awareness campaign insignia). Did you know that Blue dye #2 is used to color your kids’ “juice” or “sports drinks”, as well as their blue jeans?  Many of us know this by necessity.  Too bad the bees don’t.

I wondered what this industrial stew has done to the already-stressed bee population.  How would this affect their health, behavior, and future color choices?  Not to mention their communication…I mean, if those French M&Ms were made from petroleum-based, metal-laced dyes, then judging from my own 58-pound human child’s reactions, I’d say those bees are in for one hell of a waggle dance.

Now this didn’t happen in the US, and yes, France is a member of the European Union where some dyed foodstuffs come with a package warning that clearly states, “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children“.  And the EU has encouraged manufacturers to find a natural replacement for a few synthetic dyes.  (Many companies have already complied rather than risk profit losses because of a warning label.  One great example of response to consumer demand this year – beyond government requirements – was Nestle UK’s voluntary removal of all synthetic additives from their entire line of beverages and sweets.  Here’s hoping they do the same with their US market.)

The French M&M’s factory could be using natural red colorants for all I know.  Or maybe they opted for Red 40 and took a chance on using the warning label.  But Blue 1, Blue 2, and Green S petroleum dyes in particular don’t appear in the European Union’s list of food colorants that are subject to the extra package warning label or voluntary phase-out requirements.  Manufacturers opt for petroleum colors where they can, because they’re cheaper than natural colorants. So, it is possible that the bee feast was at least partially petroleum-based.

I wrote to Mars a couple of days ago asking if the dyes in their Strasbourg factory were natural plant-based or synthetic petroleum-based colors.  I’ve not received any reply yet.  I truly hope my petrol worries here are unwarranted and that the colorants were plant-based.

No matter where the French candy colors came from, I am concerned about how any company could allow its waste products to be so carelessly managed, for bees and humans alike.  The company responsible for this mistake says that they have remedied the situation by storing the product indoors, locked up tight.  But surely they can’t be the only ones playing fast and loose with the world’s food supply.

My thoughts upon reading this story darted all over the place.  This fiasco really messed with my love of hot tea and baklava…Not to mention it screws up that whole “eat local” thing.  Hard to do when your food is flying all over the country, visiting industrial parks along the way.  I realize this isn’t as deceptive as the Chinese fake honey scheme, and this one discovery was in France, but it can really make you think, and it opens questions about where our own food comes from and how poorly it’s managed.

Now, as in the GMO debate, being able to read a label or use an app may no longer be enough to find out what’s in your food.  Which brings to mind the synthetic orange dye that is routinely sprayed – onto oranges – and requires no labeling or warning whatsoever.  This bizarro story may have a sensational headline and sci-fi appeal, but it still reminds me why it’s important to know where your food comes from.

This is always my takeaway:  We are not worker bees for food manufacturers, collecting colorful fake chemical foodstuffs to bring back to the hives.  We have all the power to influence what products the manufacturers offer by voting with our dollars.  A small shift in sales can send a message loud and clear to food companies that use petroleum based ingredients.

In the bee analogy, my honeycomb would be pretty boring by comparison to these festive French flyers.  Preservative- and color- free…and less likely to give my kid and I a chemical buzz.

So tell me:  Would you eat this blue, green and red honey?

You may also like:

Winners And Losers Of Food Coloring: August And September 2012

Petrol Peas:  Food Coloring Hidden In Shelf Staples

3 Responses to “The Food Coloring Story That Put Me Off My Baklava”
  1. Jennifer says:

    I would not eat that honey, that is gross! But if you go to the farmer’s market or candy stores, you do see honey straws flavored honey that is different colors. So some companies purposely dye their honey different colors to sell it. yuck! I buy all of our honey locally and I can totally notice a flavor difference from location to location and year to year. The batch I have right now has a very strong flavor that does not work well in cooking. We started our own bee hive in April and I am hoping for some of our own honey next summer!

  2. I would not serve my boys that colored honey… I think I have seen naturally tinted honeys before somewhere.

  3. Bridget says:

    I get my honey raw and local. In the pacific NW, we have a lot of blackberry bushes and the honey that bees collect off of them is delicious. Clover honey just doesn’t cut it.

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