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Herald Square Display of synthetic dyes

A KIND Healthy Snacks display in Herald Square, New York City showed how much artificial coloring kids in America are consuming each day. (Photo: Seth Olenick/Courtesy of KIND)

Seth Olenick/Courtesy of KIND

When it comes to food and beverages, can you really “live and let dye”?

Today, KIND Healthy Snacks unveiled a display in Herald Square in New York City to show just how much synthetic dye American kids consume each day. The display consisted of several test tubes, which may not sound like a lot. Ah, but these test tubes weren’t your standard issue laboratory test tubes. They were gigantic test tubes, large enough to hold 2,000 gallons-worth of the following eight synthetic dyes that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) currently allows to be put in food and beverages:

  • FD&C Blue No. 1: Used in confections, beverages, cereals, frozen dairy desserts, popsicles, frostings & icings
  • FD&C Blue No. 2: Used in baked goods, cereals, snack foods, ice cream, confections, and yogurt
  • FD&C Green No. 3: Used in cereal, ice cream, sherbet, drink mixers, and baked goods
  • Citrus Red No. 2: Only approved for use to color orange peels
  • FD&C Red No. 3: Used in confections, beverages, cereals, ice cream cones, frozen dairy desserts, popsicles, frostings & icings
  • FD&C Red No. 40: Used in cereal, beverages, gelatins, puddings, dairy products, and confections
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5: Used in confections, cereals, snack foods, beverages, condiments, baked goods, and yogurt
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6: Used in cereals, snack foods, baked goods, gelatins, beverages, dessert powders, crackers, and sauces

Yes, every day kids in this country essentially drink 2,000 gallons of these colorfully named dyes. The only FDA-approved dye missing from this list is Orange B, which sounds like a rapper name but has been used to color the casing that wraps around hot dogs and sausage.

Stephanie Csaszar, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian at KIND, described how the KIND team arrived at this 2,000 gallon number. They started with a study published in Clinical Pediatrics in 2014 by researchers from Purdue University (Laura J. Stevens, MS, John R. Burgess, PhD, Mateusz A. Stochelski, BS, and Thomas Kuczek, PhD).

“The study found that a child on average consumed somewhere between 100 mg to 200 mg a day of synthetic dyes,” she said. “We took the lower number and multiplied it by 74 million children based on Census data and converted it to gallons.” The 2,000 number may be an underestimate. A lot has changed in the years since the study was conducted, and Csaszar believes that the amount of dye in kids’ foods has “definitely been increasing since then.”

To see how pervasive artificial food coloring has become, take a look at a study published in Clinical Pediatrics in 2016. In this study, Ameena Batada, DrPH, from the University of North Carolina-Asheville and Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) analyzed 810 products that were marketed to children in a grocery store in North Carolina. They found that 350 of these products (43.2%) contained artificial colors. The only category of food that didn’t have such coloring was produce, that is, real fresh fruits and vegetables. Nearly all candies (96.3%) and fruit-flavored snacks (94%) contained artificial coloring. Yes, just because something is called fruit doesn’t mean that it consists completely of fruit or even has any real fruit. Case in point, no real fruit is naturally shaped like fruit loops cereal.

Florida, Coral Gables, Original Daily Bread Marketplace, pickles

Artificial coloring is present in many foods (including many you may not expect) from popcorn to pickles. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Why might KIND be “dying” to get the word out on artificial coloring? As Daniel Lubetzky, founder and Executive Chairman of KIND, their Herald Square display resulted from what happened to the KIND Fruit Bites product line. “The Fruit Bites, which were made from real dried fruit, were not selling well,” he relayed. Csaszar added, “Market research showed that the problem was that they didn’t look as vibrant as other kids’ products.”

As Lubetzky explained, “This helped KIND realize that there is a very big problem. Ninety-eight percent of fruit snacks lead with sugar. They are not really fruit snacks, but instead are ‘Franken-food.’ We couldn’t compete with such ‘glow-in-the dark’ products.”

This left KIND with a not-so-kind business decision to make, either reformulate the product to look more colorful and “attractive” or pull the product line completely. “We felt that reformulating was not in line with our company’s core values, so we decided to discontinue this product but felt that we needed to share this story.”

The big question is what’s the risk of continuing to consume such synthetic dyes? Yes, they are FDA-approved to be used in foods, which implies that they are safe for consumption. However, a closer look reveals a relative dearth of well-conducted scientific studies. Is this dearth then “coloring” the current assessment of them? In 2010, the CSPI did compile and release a report entitled Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks that highlighted some concerns. The report listed mouse and rat studies that identified potential links between certain dyes and bladder, thyroid, adrenal, and testicular tumors including some malignant ones. Of course, although some humans may be rats, what happens in rats and mice doesn’t always happen in humans. Nevertheless, the report suggested that not enough follow-up studies have been performed.

The report also stated that “numerous studies have found that mixtures of dyes cause hyperactivity and other behavioral impairments in children.” This is in line with what Rebecca Bevans, PhD, an instructor at Western Nevada College, claimed in the following TEDx talk:

Are these claims about the health effects of artificial food coloring justified? Again, when it comes to studying these additives, our society has done a bad dye job. There just haven’t been enough good scientific studies. In fact, just last week, the State of California announced that they will take a closer look at the impact of synthetic dyes in children’s food.

The other concern is that artificial coloring is to food what Photo-shopping, filters, and plastic surgery are to people, creating very unrealistic expectations about how things should appear. When you are bombarded with artificial images of what people “should look like”, you may not be so happy with how you and the people around you really look. Similarly, becoming used to a rainbow of food colors may leave you disappointed when you see what natural food really looks like. That can be like expecting your entire life to be a rom-com and then chastising your significant other for not hiring an entire marching band to profess his or her love for you. Will kids growing up with so-called “Franken-food” then be less enthusiastic about eating real naturally-colored food?

Moreover, food dyes have no nutritional value. They are just for appearance in our appearance-obsessed society. Why, then, roll the dye and take on unknown risk for something that doesn’t make your or your kids’ lives any better? That could be like drinking some unknown chemicals just so that your toilet plunger can look prettier. Dyes may help food items get more attention, but these dyes themselves should be getting more attention. Much more research is needed. People should ask the question: why are artificial colors in so much of our food supply? Shouldn’t you be “dying to know” the possible health effects of consuming all these dyes?

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