Artificial colors linked to increased hyperactivity in children are the "secret shame" of the food industry and should be banned by FDA, consumer activists have said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has formally petitioned FDA to require a warning label on foods that contain any of the eight suspect artificial dyes. The consumer activist group is also considering a request for an outright ban on the colors.
The move follows calls by the UK Food Standards Agency for manufacturers to phase out the additives from their products. All this is in response to a study from researchers at the University of Southampton in the UK, published in the prestigious journal The Lancet, which concluded that cocktails of a number of different artificial food colors and the preservative sodium benzoate exacerbate hyperactive behavior in children at least up to middle childhood.
A major drawback of the study that has been cited by European risk assessors, however, is that the additives were not assessed individually but in mixtures, so it is impossible to determine to which the observed effect should be attributed.
The CSPI petition refers to eight artificial colors: Yellow 5, Red 40, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, and Yellow 6.
"The continued use of these unnecessary artificial dyes is the secret shame of the food industry and the regulators who watch over it," said Michael Jacobson, CSPI executive director.
"Banning these synthetic chemicals is certainly a far less drastic step than putting so many children on Ritalin or other potentially dangerous and sometimes-abused prescription stimulants," he added.
"The food industry has known about this problem for 30 years, yet few companies have switched to safer colorings. We hope today is the beginning of the end for Yellow 5, Red 40, and these other dubious dyes."
The amount of food dye certified for use in 1955 was 12 mg per person per day, but that has risen sharply, according to FDA. In 2007, the figure had reached 59 mg per capita per day, or nearly five times as much, was certified for use.
In addition to the required labeling, CSPI also wanted FDA to correct the information it presents to parents on its web site about the impact of artificial food dyes on behavior.
The petition is supported by 19 prominent psychiatrists, toxicologists, and pediatricians who, according to CSPI, have co-signed a letter urging Congress to hold hearings on artificial food dyes and behavior. Calls to launch a research project have also been issued.
A formal ban on these ingredients would have far-reaching effects on the industry, requiring huge investment in time and money. A statement from CSPI lists various foods that use the artificial colors, showing how extensive their use is.
However, CSPI points across the Atlantic and highlights Britain as a shining example, stating that, although several food manufacturers use the colors in their US products, the UK versions are free of the dyes in question and use natural colorings instead.
"The science shows that kids' behavior improves when these artificial colorings are removed from their diets and worsens when they're added to the their diets," said Dr. David Schab, author of meta-analysis published in Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics in 2004 (Volume 25, Number 6, pp. 423-434).
"While not all children seem to be sensitive to these chemicals, it's hard to justify their continued use in foods - especially those foods heavily marketed to young children," said Schab, who is based at Columbia University in New York.