Human beings are creatures governed by aesthetics more than reason. How else can you explain the massive amount of money spent on plastic surgeries, cosmetics, overpriced clothing, shiny cars, and expensive haircuts? We humans sure like pretty things.
Food is no different. Independent of taste, we want our food to look a certain way. Apples have to be red, lettuce has to be green, and our grape-flavored drinks have to be purple. Any difference and it doesn't sell nearly as well. So it's not surprising that manufacturers feel the need to put a bunch of dyes in their foods. But until now, we never knew how many were being used.
In the first study of its kind, Purdue University scientists cracked open a bunch of cereals, candies, baked goods, and sports drinks to find out how many dyes were in them. The answer: A whole lot.
If you're pounding an orange Powerade, you're washing the various stimulents down with 22.1 milligrams of dyes. Put Kraft's Creamy French dressing on your salad, and you're coating your lettuce with five milligrams of dyes. Crack open a packet of Skittles, and you're getting 33.3 milligrams per serving. Oh, and do you put those Mini Green cupcakes from Target in your kid's lunch? Then you're also putting 55.3 milligrams of artificial dyes per serving in there, the most of any food in the country.
But just how many are too many? As the study summarizes:
A child who eats 2 cups of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a small bag of Skittles, and 8 ounces of Crush Orange will consume 102 milligrams of artificial dye. Behavioral tests found as little as 30 mg can cause adverse reactions.
And ultimately that's what we're talking about when we talk about the dangers of food dyes: How do they affect children? ADHD and hyperactivity are the two disorders most heavily linked to food dye consumption. And while parents have given testimony about their children being adversely affected by eating too many food dyes, is there actual science backing up these claims? It's tricky.
The one thing everyone can agree on is that food dyes have been terribly dangerous in the past. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, red lead and the insecticide copper arsenate were used to give cheese and tea leaves some extra color. In 1851 England, 200 people were poisoned by dyed lozenges. In the early 1900s, dye makers made their dyes with aniline, a toxic compound derived from petroleum. It wasn't until the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act that scientists started looking at the safety of dyes.
And due to that oversight, in 1938 only 15 different dyes were allowed to be used on food in America. In the 1950s when kids started getting sick after eating Halloween candy with Orange #1 in it, that number dropped to 14. In 1976, Red #2 was banned after it was suspected to be a carcinogen. And slowly it went, more and more dyes being banned, until now, when only seven are allowed to be used.
So, dyes have a long history of being unhealthy. But are any of the current seven "approved" dyes dangerous?
There have been numerous studies published that show some kind of link between ADHD and food dyes, it's just that the link isn't concrete. (Not surprising, seeing as ADHD and hyperactivity don't even have universally accepted methods for diagnosis and treatment yet.) The FDA is of the opinion that negative effects associated with them are more in line with food allergies than an epidemic-scale poisoning. And the U.K. Food Standards Agency goes a bit further by officially recommending that parents with children who have ADHD eliminate artificial food dyes from their diets. (The Grocery Manufacturers Association, meanwhile, says that every study showing any link between food dyes and mental disorders is invalid and unscientific, but there's really no reason to listen to them.)
So, where does that leave us? Should you keep your kids away from food dyes? Looking through the long list of products that use artificial food dyes, maybe the question we're asking isn't the right one. While artifical food dyes possibly aren't bad, the foods that tend to utilize them certainly aren't good. Simply put: Cutting them out of your children's diet can't hurt.
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