Update: FDA Committee Votes Down Warning Labels for Food Colorings

The FDA Food Advisory committee voted not to require warning labels on food colors.  (The FDA is not required to follow the advice of the advisory committee, but likely will do so.)  Not a surprising result, but disappointing.

More aggravating to me is the spin in the medical press.  Medscape headlines blared: “No Link Between Food Dyes and Behavioral Problems, Says FDA Panel.” [1]

The Medscape article  stated categorically that only certain “susceptible” ADHD kids react to food colors.  On the contrary, the Lancet 2007 study showed that colors increase hyperactivity in children “in the general population”—not just in “susceptible” kids who also have ADHD.  [2] This was the study that galvanized England and the European Union to require warnings on products containing the food colors.  Most major candy manufacturers in the EU as well as most British supermarket chains have already reformulated their products to eliminate artificial food colorings.

In addition to the Lancet study, other recent research has investigated “normal” children, finding higher hyperactivity scores when the children were ingesting food colorings.[3]

The Medscape article also stated that the reaction in these susceptible children was caused by a “unique intolerance” to the substances and not by any “inherent neurotoxic properties.”

Again, this statement is incorrect.  Researchers in England found that food colors are neutrotoxic, and that the neurotoxicity is exponentially increased if colors are combined with other  brain toxins, such as aspartame and glutamate.[4] Other studies of individual colors have found that they increase neurons’ permeability to calcium ions, meaning that red coloring  makes neurons “fire” more readily.[5] Animal studies have found that the color affects neurotransmitters.[6] The food colors have also been shown to inhibit energy production in mitochondria.  [7]

The good news in the midst of this disappointment:  the vote to require warning labels failed by only one vote: 8 to 6. This vote shows that even FDA advisors are aware of the risks of these chemicals, which of course have no value except as a marketing tool.  In fact the panel voted 13 to 1 to require more studies on the role of food additives in hyperactivity in children.

Other good news:  Frito-Lay has decided to remove artificial colors and flavors from more than 60 products, substituting beet and carrot juice, for example, for red dye number 40. “We’re always looking for new ways to give consumers what they’re looking for,” explained Jeff Dahncke, spokesman for Pepsico, which owns Frito-Lay.  (However, Frito-Lay does not intend to remove artificial colors from top-sellers Doritos and Cheetos.)

Sensient Technologies announced last year that it is investing $16 million to build the biggest natural color manufacturing plant in North America. “The trend towards natural colors is accelerating, and this new manufacturing plant will further promote the conversion to natural colors by large food and beverage manufacturers,” explained Kenneth Manning, CEO of Sensient Technologies.  [8]

And some commentators are realizing that American families—particularly lower income families–need help from the government if they are to avoid brain-damaging additives in their foods.    Columnist Petula Dvorak for the Washington Post quipped: “Okay, we get it. Loopy cereal the color of a circus tent or yogurt that glows an unholy green is not good for us or the kids.

“But when it turns out that barbecue sauce, beef bouillon, pickles, bread, the skin of oranges, cheese, meat and crescent rolls are also dyed to make you want to eat them, healthy eating becomes a ridiculous game of hide-and-seek that few people have time to play.”

Noting that Europeans have already reformulated products to avoid artificial dyes, she concluded: “If getting companies to start selling food that looks a little less like Play-Doh is acting like a nanny state, then bring it on. We can use a little help with the discipline over here.”[9]

For more information about the effects of additives and how to avoid them,  see my Resource pages, the Feingold Association website and the Fed Up with Food Additives website.

[1] Emma Hitt, No link between food Dyes and Behavioral Problems, says FDA Panel, Medscape News Today, April 1, 2011.

[2] McCann D,  et al.  Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet 2007  Nov 3;370(9598):1560-7.

[3] See  [NO author listed}  Artificial food colouring and hpyperactivity symptoms in children.    Prescrire International 2009 Oct;18(103):215.  PMID 19882794.  This placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover clinical study in 297 children representative of the general population showed higher hyperactivity scores during the periods when they were ingesting artificial food colorings.  Researchers concluded: “these data suggest that it is best to avoid exposing children to artificial food coloring.”

A similar study was done by Bateman, B. et al. The effects of a double blind, placebo-controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children.  Archives of Disease in Childhood 2004 June; 80(6): 506-511.  This study of three-year-olds in the general population also found increased hyperactive behavior while the children were ingesting the food colorings, and reductions in hyperactivity during the withdrawal phase. Click here for the full text.

[4]Lau, K. et al. Synergistic interactions between commonly used food additives in a developmental neurotoxicity test.  Toxicological Sciences 2006 March; 90(1): 178-187.   Click here for the full text.

[5] Augustine, G. and Leitan, H.  Presynaptic effect of erythosin B at the frog neuromuscular junction: ion and photon sensitivity.  Journal of Physiology 1983 Jan; 334: 65-77.

[6] Goldenring, J, Batter, D, and Shaywitz, B.  Sulfanilic acid: behavioral change related to azo food dyes in developing rats.  Neurobehavioral Toxicology and Teratology 1982 Jan-Feb; 4(1): 43-49;  Augustine, G., and Levitan, H.  Neurotransitter release from a vertebrate neuromuscular synapse affected by a food dye.  Science 1980 Mar. 28; 207(4438): 1489-1490 [ scroll up on the link to find this citation];  Lafferman, J. and Silbergeld, E. Erythrosin B inhibits dopamine transport in rat caudate synaptosomes.  Science 1979 July; 205(4404): 410-412.

[7] Reyes, P., Valim, M, and Vercesi, A.  Effect of organic synthetic food colours on mitochondrial respiration.  Food Additives and Contaminants 1996 Jan; 13(1): 5-11.

[8] Lyndsey Layton, “Food Dyes’ Favor Fades as Possible links to Hyperactivity Emerge,” Washington Post March 25, 2011.

[9] Petula Clark, “Food dyes may make kids hyper, some scientists say, but sadly the price is right,” Washington Post,  March 28, 2011.

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