The Red Food Dye Nation

Photo by: Hemera / Thinkstock

When our oldest was a toddler we used Burt’s Bees baby toothpaste. It tasted like fruit without the zing of fluoride. A couple of years later Burt’s Bees quit making the baby toothpaste. I made the switch to a kids store brand and was met with constant daily battles to get my son to brush his teeth.

A year ago I was in the toothpaste isle picking up new toothbrushes and a tube of paste for us, mom and dad, when I noticed there was a strawberry flavored toothpaste. I thought, hey why not buy it for the kids. I did not even think about what might be in it. My only concern was stopping the daily “brush your teeth” battle that had been going on the past four and a half years.

That evening I took out the tube then squeezed a dot onto the baby’s toothbrush and was shocked. The stuff was flourescent red. My first thought was “how much sugar did they put in this stuff” and my second thought was “Uh, this stuff is unnaturally red.” Normally I never gave dyes a second thought. Yet, for some reason there was something unnatural about that tube of toothpaste that I just could not let rest.

The question coming up a lot lately is, are food dyes ok? Do they spark behavioral issues in kids and health complaints in adults? Have dyes contributed to the rise of ADD, ADHD, and Autism in the past 40 years as a result of their increased consumption? For years the food administration has given their stamp of approval for the use of petroleum based dyes in food. Dyes that are in everything from cleaners to toothpaste to medicine.

In 2007 a study was forth coming siting the dangers of food dyes. As a result of the study the UK food administration required warning labels on all products containing petroleum dyes. The warning labels advised parents of the risk of hyperactivity due to the dyes. Industry leaders Kraft, Mars, Coca Cola and Wal-Mart skipped the warning labels choosing instead to make products shipped to the UK Sodium Benzoate and petroleum dye free. Yet here in the US these same companies continue to sell products for human consumption that harbor harmful petroleum based dyes and preservatives.

Clipart by: unknown

More recently in April 2011 the FDA held a hearing to once again determine if dyes contribute to hyperactivity. Advocates for the removal of all synthetic dyes from food products and medicines claim that non-food based dyes are unnecessary and cause hyperactivity in children. They gave compelling evidence that linked petroleum based preservatives and dyes to the increased number of children with allergies, ear infections, mood, cancer, ADHD, ADD, Autism, and other related spectrum disorders. The panel, minus one, agreed that dyes most likely cause a threat and yes warning labels should be required.

The battle was far from being won. Rather than give a statement based on their findings, the panel was required to answer a series of questions. Questions devised by crafty lawyers that when answered either way would be interpreted as, “food dyes do not cause hyperactivity or allergies in children.” Therefore, the FDA ruled that there was not enough evidence. Thus, companies were not required to post a warning label on consumable products here in America.

Color is beautiful!

After the April FDA ruling, dye advocates launched a campaign to gain support for the use of chemical dyes. The ads adopted images of gray popsicles calling, “a world without dyes…colorless.” Kantha Shelke, a food chemist and spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists, stated, “Color is such a crucial part of the eating experience that banning dyes would take much of the pleasure out of life.”

Tattfoo Tan believes that Mother Nature has it all taken care of. Tattfoo Tan, is a Malaysian-born artist who resides in Staten Island. He developed The Nature Matching System “as a reminder to consume your [natural] daily recommended doses of color.” Tan wanted to understand the connection between the color of food and its nutritional value. Tan matched 88 natural colors using photographs of the fruits and vegetables found in the Union Square Green Market in New York and Photoshop’s eyedropper tool. Tan agrees “neon orange Cheetos is something spectacular to look at but the nutritional value is zilch.” This is why many people ask “are cheetos healthy?

So what is the truth?

We know commercial food coloring is derived from coal tar oil, petroleum, and insects because it is cheaper to make; but, it comes with a price. The FDA is confident that all of the toxic proponents in the petroleum is eliminated during processing. They counter the accusations that dyed foods contain toxic chemicals from the petroleum, with: natural foods contain more petroleum from the fertilizer and the means of transporting crops than the amount of trace elements found in the actual dyes and preservatives.

We know that organic natural fruits and vegetables can be used to make an array of colorful dyes. The food industry refutes the idea of using natural dyes. They claim natural food dyes are too unstable, too muted and, uninteresting. They are convinced that no one will want to eat natural dyed foods. They believe that the public prefers the neon orange Cheetos to the pale peach natural Cheetos. The bright red strawberry Jello to a muted brown. Natural food companies such as India TreeSurf Sweets and Yummy Earth are determined to meet the need of color.

Who do we believe?

Voices from Dr. Feingold to Gwyneth Paltrow preach the benefits of a clean whole foods diet void of the unnecessary preservatives, artificial flavors, sweeteners and dyes. The FDA on the other hand in unison with countless doctors, scientists and organizations swear synthetic additives in food are not harmful. I decided to test the theory in my own home on our son who has Aspbegers.

The Test…

For one month we threw out all preservatives, artificial flavors and sweeteners, and dyes. It was very difficult at first because our city does not have a health food store and the kids are creatures of habits. They wanted their favorite foods.

Almost everything had to be made from scratch. Because companies are not required to list the ingredients in the products they use from outside sources I ordered the Feingold grocery list to help navigate the store isles when I needed something convient. Even though the label looks clean that is not always the case.

In one week I noticed a considerable change in my son. He could think more clearly. He was not bouncing off the walls in a rage. He was writing and reading without tantrums. The defiance leant way to a more agreeable attitude. He is happy and still full of life but the regular ticks are minimal.

The real test came on Easter Sunday. The kids ate a handful of jelly beans and for four days they were absolutely out of their minds. The defiance, screaming, and tantrums were back. The other children were moody, defiant and hyper.

I’d say from personal experience the answer for us is clear. Synthetic replacements in the form of preservatives [BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole), BHT (Burylated Hydroxytoluene), TBHQ (Tertiary Butylhydroquinone)], artificial flavors and sweeteners (aspartame and splenda), and dyes are indeed harmful and do cause adverse reactions; especially in individuals with predisposed allergies and learning disorders.

What now?

The next question is, will the FDA ever be responsible and require warning labels on products or warrant the elimination of such harmful chemicals? Nah, probably not. Or at least not in the near future. The pool of individuals sensitive to artificial flavors and colors is too small. If you call every one kid in 28 small. Fortunately there are reputable companies springing up to lead us into a colorful yet nutritious tomorrow.


–Visit Indie Candy and Natural Candy Store for natural baking supplies including food based dyes.
Eco Kids: for all natural craft supplies such as egg dye and playdough.
–Join the mission for Better School Food.
Spoonfed: Tips to help kids adopt a healthy diet comprised of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats.
–Natural recipes for dyes: Rhythm of the Home, Natural Cookie Frosting, Natural Colored Rice Balls, Natural Easter Egg Dye, Darling Clementine, Homemade Playdough Dye, Natural Dyed Jello.