Australian researchers once conducted an experiment in the best setting ever — an ice cream parlor near the beach. Over the course of a month, they offered customers the same 14 flavors, but on randomly selected days certain flavors were offered in colored and uncolored versions.
The results were clear: A colored ice cream sold three times better than an uncolored one. This isn’t really surprising. As humans, we’re primed to choose foods that look fresh and appealing. While this probably helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors pick the ripest berries and freshest greens, today those instincts lure us into filling our grocery carts with foods in dazzling reds, sunburst yellows, and electric blues.
In the fruit and veggie aisle, bright colors are a good thing. But elsewhere in the grocery store, they’re often a sign that a food has been enhanced with a color additive.
Some colorants are natural, originating from plants or even insects. Others are synthetic dyes, such as petroleum-based Red 40 and Yellow 5 lake (lakes are water-insoluble dyes).
All color additives require FDA approval, so we assume they’re safe. But over the years, more artificial dyes have been banned than any other type of additive, mostly due to cancer risk. All of the most commonly used dyes on the market today have tested positive for DNA mutation in at least some of the studies.
The FDA finally admitted in 2011 that artificial dyes can cause ADHD symptoms in some children, but the agency is too influenced by the food industry to remove the dyes from the market or require warning labels.
Artificial dyes can also cause allergic reactions, particularly in people who have other allergies or sensitivities or are genetically predisposed.
Unfortunately, many of the eye-popping foods on grocery shelves are marketed toward children. For some kids, and their parents, this is a problem. Since the 1970s, artificial dyes have been connected with causing ADHD symptoms in some children.
No one knows this better than the parents of an affected kid. Or, in the case of the Hainline family, two kids. Long-time Nevada County resident Rhodi Hainline began letting her children have occasional treats, like popsicles, around toddler age.
“At first, we didn’t know why they quit listening and had meltdowns. It took a while to figure out that food dyes were the trigger.” she said.
Nine major reviews of the research have confirmed the connection, particularly in kids who already have ADHD. But a well-designed UK study, published in The Lancet, found that even some kids who didn’t have ADHD experienced behavioral problems after ingesting just 20 to 25 mg of dye. This is about half the amount found in a cup of cherry Kool-Aid (50 mg) or two tablespoons of chocolate confetti icing (41 mg).
“It only took one popsicle or a few Jolly Ranchers,” said Hainline, “and their emotions and physical sensations were magnified. Normally, my daughter might pull off a sock if the seam was bugging her. After eating food dyes, she’d pull off the sock, cut it up, yell and scream, and pull on her hair.”
The Hainline kids, now 16 and 20, still avoid food dyes. If they slip? “One gets headaches and can’t focus. The other gets overly stressed about everyday things like homework, or running late,” she said.
In the European Union, warning labels are now required on dyed foods. Not wanting the kiss of death that a warning label might mean for sales, many companies reformulated their products. But those same companies still use artificial dyes when selling the identical products in the U.S.
Thanks to growing consumer awareness, Kellogg, Mars, Nestle, General Mills, and other companies have voluntarily replaced dyes with safer colors in some of their products.
Food dyes are unnecessary, and can trick consumers into thinking they’re getting real fruits or veggies in cereals, beverages, muffins, blueberry pancake mix, and carrot cake, to name just a few. Since artificial dyes are mostly found in junk food, you — and your kids — will be better off avoiding them.