Many beverages, especially the sports drinks and water flavor enhancers contain bright glowing yellows, blues, reds, purples and oranges that are especially attractive to children and young adults. And, the glow stems from artificial colors. Their purpose is to keep the beverages and foods that are sitting on grocery store shelves looking fresh and eye-catching.
We see them everywhere. The drinks have a fun and tasty look, not to mention, so many color choices. But, what the average consumer doesn’t know, is that food colors do not add flavor to our food or drinks. In fact, the artificial colors are complex synthetic molecules that impart a bitter taste.
So, why bother with artificial or synthetic food colorants? Artificial colors are used to improve the appearance of products. In fact, many food ingredients without artificial colors can change in appearance over time. Artificial colors are similar to a cover-up for the changes that occur naturally over the time a product sits on the grocery shelf or in your pantry or refrigerator. Cost is an additional reason artificial colorants are used. Synthetic dyes can be produced at a fraction of the cost of gathering and processing the materials used to make natural colorants.
Are Artificial Colors Safe?
Although they have been widely used for years, that shouldn’t justify that artificial colorants are safe. In the past, many dyes were banned because of their adverse effects on laboratory animals or because of a lack of adequate testing. Recently, some safety concerns have come to light that have put the use of artificial colors into the spotlight of controversy.
Because of this, I am left with many questions. I want to know what the long-term side effects are for myself and my family. I also wonder if artificial color use is worth the lives of the animals used for short term toxicological studies and, for that matter, do animal toxicological studies truly translate to long term safety for humans?
How do we address research findings from reputable peer reviewed research papers like The Lancet that indicate that some children develop a hyperactivity to artificial colors or other adverse reactions that are only now being discovered after being used for several decades? Do I really want or need to be the guinea pig for long term artificial color ingestion?
With these questions in mind, I made the personal choice to try to avoid the FDA allowable artificial colors that have been used in our society for so many decades. It has not been easy to avoid them, though, since they seem to be everywhere.
We are exposed to artificial colorants more than ever since more and more foods and beverages contain them. In addition, consumers are eating and drinking larger portion sizes, causing more and more exposure to artificial colorants. Have you ever heard of super sizing or a Big Gulp? Information from the past might only be taking into account the limited amount of artificial coloring that was ingested at that time, such as mom’s colored frosting on your birthday cake. The research hasn’t taken into account the larger portion sizes consumed by many individuals.
As a nation, we also carry more body fat where many of these artificial colorants or metabolic byproducts can be stored and have the potential to cause unknown health risks as they reach increasing concentrations in our body. Although short term toxicological studies have typically been performed on animals, we still lack long term safety studies such as multigenerational genotoxic studies or endocrine disruptor studies.
To decide whether we should continue to use artificial colors, we need to understand how artificial colors are made, how they have been allowed to be used in the United States, how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluates their safety and regulates them, and what potential risks were discovered from colors that were allowed from the past.
How Are Artificial Colorants Made?
It is estimated that more than 10,000 different dyes and pigments are used industrially for every color application (including textiles etc.), and by a year 2000 estimation, more than 700,000 tons of synthetic dyes are produced annually worldwide.
Artificial food colorants were originally manufactured from coal tar, which comes from coal. Today, most synthetic food dyes are derived from petroleum or crude oil. These colorants are now rigorously analyzed using modern analytical chemistry to ensure they contain minimal or no traces of byproducts of petroleum. The chemical process to make each colorant varies widely, though.
Each compound has a unique and complex order of steps to produce. They are synthesized to ensure the chromophores or chromogens are properly represented in the molecules and are water soluble. The chromophore is a chemical group that is responsible for the appearance of color in compounds. These artificial colorants possess color because they absorb light in the visible spectrum (400–700 nm) and they have at least one chromophore (color-bearing molecule moiety).
Color is the part of perception that is carried to the eye from our surroundings by differences in the wavelengths of light. An example of artificial colorant chemical structure is represented below:
History of Food Colors
Initially, the U.S. regulation of food colors was covered in the Federal Food and Drug Act of 1906. This legislation prohibited the use of harmful colors in food for the purpose of concealing product inferiority. In those days, the burden of proof that a food or drug was safe was placed on the Bureau of Chemistry in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In 1907, the USDA published a list of seven synthetic organic dyes considered to be safe for use in food. This list was what was remaining after investigations and evaluations of hundreds of dyes used in food at the time.
In 1927, the regulatory functions of the Bureau of Chemistry of the USDA became part of the Food and Drug Administration and the FDA was given regulatory oversight of foods and drugs, including food colors. In 1938, The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) was issued and prohibited the use of most synthetic organic dyes and pigments in foods, drugs and cosmetics unless they came from batches certified by the FDA to be safe for the permitted uses. These regulations were enacted at a time when many analytical and toxicological capabilities and technologies were limited.
The FD&C Act required that foods containing artificial colors must declare that fact on their labels. It also required new nomenclature that was devised for the certified coal-tar colors consisting of the prefix “FD&C” to indicate food, drug and cosmetic use and “D&C” to indicate drug and/or cosmetic use. The prefix is typically followed by the specific color and a number. For example, FD&C Red No. 40.
The regulation of colors was changed by the 1960 Color Additive Amendments to the FD&C Act. The amendments required premarket approval by the FDA for all colors added to foods, drugs and cosmetics. In addition, any company or organization could petition the FDA for the use of a new color additive. The company was required to provide supporting data and it was the petitioner’s responsibility to demonstrate the safety of any proposed use of a color additive.
If, upon evaluation of the data in the petition, the FDA found that the proposed color additive is safe and suitable for the intended use, the agency would issue a new color additive regulation or alter an existing one. This practice is still in place today. These petitions generally consist of chemical, toxicological and environmental data with the information on the identity, composition, manufacturing process, physical and chemical properties, intended use, use level, stability data, analytical methods, and proposed labeling of the marketed color additives.
For food use, the typical approach for exposure assessments employs information from food consumption surveys, combined with maximum concentrations of the color additive in foods, to arrive at a range of exposures across the consumer population. The FDA encourages petitioners to discuss the appropriate approach to estimating exposure to color additives from these uses when preparing a petition.
To determine the safety of these chemicals as food or color additives, they are typically tested on animals. It is questionable whether multigenerational toxicological studies are done or even useful because animal models may not always correlate or indicate true effects on humans.
I’m still left with questions. For instance, how much of these colors are being consumed in this obese population? How was this exposure predicted when market data was not readily available? The “reasonable safety of no harm” standard comes from the legislative history of the 1960 Color Additive Amendments. It is important to understand that the standard does not require proof of absolute safety or that no harm will result under any conceivable circumstances. The standard means that the FDA must always make safety decisions with some level of uncertainty, unfortunately.
There are several colorants that have been deemed controversial. My review of the available research finds that most currently US-approved colorants raise health concerns of varying degrees.
A British study published in The Lancet in 2007 concluded that consuming artificial coloring and preservatives in food can increase hyperactivity in kids.
Studies in the past have produced mixed results. And, the results of this study compelled the European Food Standards Agency to urge companies to voluntarily remove artificial coloring from food products. In some cases, products must have warning statements on the label if they contain certain artificial colorants in Europe. The FDA, however, hasn't changed its opinion on the use of FDA-approved artificial food colors, which it considers safe when used properly. We have limited updates on regulations. The history of government regulation of food colors in the United States began in the 20th century. Government regulation is in its infancy – it’s still evolving, very cumbersome, influenced by private interest groups and indicates that we have a long way to go. Let’s not be the guinea pigs for food color research. We need to make personal choice on what we ingest.
We must consider the inadequacy of much of the testing done in the past and the evidence for carcinogenicity, genotoxicity, and hypersensitivity, coupled with the fact that artificial colorants do not improve the safety or nutritional quality of foods. It’s time to rethink what role, if any, these artificial colorants play in the food and beverage supply.
Consider these examples of potential health risks of artificial colorants:
The use of artificial food colors has been used significantly since 1960s. It is estimated that more than 15 million pounds of artificial food colorants are used in the U.S. per year (significantly more than when regulation was amended in 1960s).
It is much more than just colorful icing that your mom made on your birthday. These artificial colorants are in products ranging from chips, macaroni and cheese to sodas, kids’ yogurt, and sports drinks. Many large companies and the government are not willing to make changes anytime soon, but we do have a choice to make and you can influence small circles.
Let’s hope that these small circles will make big circles of influence and we can eliminate all artificial colorants before there are damaging studies that suggest men will grow breasts, the colorants will cause terminal cancers, or that artificial colorants may have long-term impacts on your grandchildren passed down from you, causing severely damaged DNAs.