The Food and Drug Administration is failing to protect children from behavioral problems caused by artificial food dyes, even though evidence of those problems has continued to mount since 2011, when an FDA advisory panel last considered the issue.
That’s the finding of a report, released Wednesday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization, that takes a look at the agency’s inaction on dyes. The center says there’s a growing consensus among researchers and healthcare providers who treat behavioral problems that avoiding food dyes benefits some children.
Since 2011, eight detailed analyses concluded that excluding food dyes, or a diet that eliminates dyed foods and certain other foods and ingredients, reduces behavior problems in some children.
In addition, recent analyses of the dye content of popular foods and drinks indicate that many American children are consuming amounts of dyes much higher than the levels demonstrated in some trials to trigger problems.
The center, which in 2008 asked the FDA to ban Red 40, Yellow 5, and six other synthetic colorings, says that the dyes fail to meet the federal safety standard for color additives. It requires “convincing evidence that establishes with reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the intended use of the color additive.”
Most food and drink companies, including ones that sell products in the United States, have eliminated most dyes in products sold in Europe, where regulators have required labels warning consumers about the behavioral problems associated with dyed foods.
However, in the U.S., a forthcoming study conducted by a researcher at the University of North Carolina and the center found that more than 90 percent of child-oriented candies, fruit-flavored snacks, and drink mixes are colored with dyes. The study also found that a majority of child-oriented foods made by companies such as Kraft, PepsiCo, and General Mills contain dyes.
“Major food companies like Coca-Cola, General Mills, McDonald’s, and PepsiCo should be embarrassed that they’re selling their American customers foods colored with Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, and other synthetic dyes, even as they’re selling naturally colored or dye-free versions of the same foods in Europe,” said Michael F. Jacobson, president of the center. “American children will continue to be exposed to these powerful chemicals so long as FDA lags behind its European counterparts.”
According to many of the 2,000 parents who wrote to the center, food dyes have a swift adverse impact on children’s behavior, and their children’s behavior generally improves quickly once dyes are phased out of their diet.
The center’s report also says the FDA is providing incorrect information on brochures and on its website that misleads consumers by denying the science connecting dyes to problems.
“It’s bad enough that the FDA has declined to ban dyes or require warning labels on dyed foods in light of the strong scientific evidence that they cause behavioral problems,” said Lisa Lefferts, senior scientist for the center. “It adds insult to injury that the FDA hasn't even informed consumers about the impact these unnecessary chemicals are having on some children and their families.”
Just a single serving of some foods designed to be popular with kids has more dye than some of the amounts used in clinical trials that triggered reactions in some kids.
The center’s report recommends that the FDA ban synthetic dyes, require a warning label in the interim, and update the inaccurate information on its website. At a minimum, says the center, the FDA could publicize its own determination that “for certain susceptible children with ADHD and other problem behaviors, the data suggest that their condition may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic food colors.”
In addition, 13 scientists with expertise in toxicology or behavioral problems in children joined Jacobson and Lefferts in a letter urging timely federal action on dyes.