Currently, Canadian food manufacturers are only required to list ‘color’ to refer to one or more colors in a product, and the listing of individual colors is optional.
However, Health Canada has proposed that it eliminate this option and require the listing of “many, if not all” food colors.
“By improving food color labeling requirements, Health Canada's goal is to enable consumers to make more informed choices which could contribute to the reduction of adverse reactions,” the government agency said.
It says that there is some evidence that some people can have “allergy-type sensitivity” to certain colorings, citing tartrazine and cochineal, and it points out that all other food additives in Canadian food already need to be listed separately.
Health Canada said it is also reacting to intensified calls for better labeling of colors following publication of the notorious Southampton study in September 2007. The research, published in British medical journal The Lancet, looked at the effects of mixes of additives on 297 children aged three to nine, and concluded that synthetic food colors and additives had a “mild but significant” link to hyperactive behavior in children at least up to middle childhood.
The study has been the subject of criticism, however, largely because the children who took part in the trial were given cocktails of additives, making it impossible to ascertain which were responsible for the perceived hyperactivity effect.
Health Canada said: “There is some evidence suggesting a link between consumption of certain food colors and adverse reactions in sensitive individuals. More recently, certain food color mixtures have been associated with behavioral effects in children. For these reasons, Health Canada considers it prudent to improve labeling requirements for food colors.”
The agency put forward two possible options for color labeling, including mandatory labeling of all individual food colors, by their individual common name or a numerical identifier; or labeling of synthetic colors that require a certification process, as well as the natural colors cochineal, carmine and annatto, due to sensitivity concerns, while allowing all other natural colors to be labeled as ‘color’ or by their common name.
The agency said that food manufacturers would be given a transition period in which to change their labels to comply with any new regulation.
Health Canada’s comment period on the proposal is open until May 3, 2010.
Information on how to submit comments is available here.