The old saying goes that we eat with our eyes first. And when it comes to catching our eyes, especially our kids’ eyes, few things work as well as color.
Perhaps this is why Americans today consume five times more synthetic food dye than they did in 1955. Artificial dye is to foods, beverages and cosmetics what Technicolor was to Oz, a burst of manufactured vibrancy that is hard to resist. Synthetic dyes in fact give products an edge: Their brilliant appeal has tremendous influence on our food and drink preferences – this goes especially for children.
However, these dyes do have their wicked side.
Synthetic Dyes – Not So New
Despite our increased consumption of artificial food dyes, they actually have been around for quite some time. Our great, great, great-grandparents likely consumed them.
In fact, going back many centuries, people used colors from natural sources to enhance the appearance of foods. Unfortunately, those naturally derived colors were packaged with arsenic, mercury and copper. Red lead, for example, was often used to color cheese, and copper arsenate colored used tea leaves for resale.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that people got smart to this problem and companies were forced to develop synthetic dyes to escape these toxic effects. They didn’t realize at that time, however, that those synthetic colors came with negative health consequences as well.
Back then, roughly 80 synthetic colors were created; a dizzying array that produced an equally broad spectrum of health problems. It took the Food and Drugs Act of 1906, commonly known as the Wiley Act, to enforce the first restrictions on synthetic colors shown to cause negative health effects. By 1938, that array of 80 dyes was watered down to just 15.
Over the decades, the “dye-sectioning” continued. Today, the FDA considers just seven synthetic colors safe.
The Debate Over the ‘Safe 7’
But fewer does not necessarily guarantee safer. There is an ongoing conversation about the side effects of these remaining seven synthetic dyes, which color our foods, beverages and cosmetics.
Yellow No. 5, which is used in potato chips, jams, candy and soft drinks, is being tested intensively for the possibility of causing hyperactivity in children. Further testing is required, but there is also a possible link between Yellow No. 5 and ADHD. Other concerns related to Yellow No. 5 involve its possible contribution to migraines, anxiety and even cancer. That’s a lot of baggage for a snack.
Europe Takes a Different Stance
Are French and Italian children healthier than American kids? Possibly. The European Union requires warning labels on food and beverages that contain synthetic colors. Period.
In fact, many of the products that are available both in the United States and Europe use different color sources. While a European version of, say, a chip contains natural coloring, the U.S. version of the same chip uses synthetic colors.
This difference fueled a firestorm of protests among U.S. consumers, who are pushing large food companies to change their formulations to include natural colors, rather than synthetic. The good news: A number of food companies are venturing down the path to using natural colors.
However, many continue to use synthetic food dyes without plans to switch anytime soon. The biggest offenders of synthetic colors are candy and confection companies as well as cereal manufacturers, all of which appeal largely to children.
Consumers Looking for a Change
Americans have the power to change the course of food manufacturing for our children and future generations. Six in 10 Americans described naturally colored foods as an important factor in their buying decisions, according to a 2014 study by Nielson.
As we grow increasingly aware of what goes into the foods and beverages we consume, we will continue to make healthier buying decisions. The road to a healthy tomorrow is before us.
We hope to be a part of it. Vegy Vida was created with all-natural colors, such as beta carotene (from carrots) and other vegetable sources, because we want to make vegetables healthier your kids, purely and simply. This should be something on which we all can see eye-to-eye.