Part 1: Toxic Colours with a Rainbow of Health Risks
How about adding some petroleum into your food? Or into your child’s food? Well, that sounds absolutely gross and an unimaginable thing to do. But that is exactly what you do when you eat processed food loaded with artificial food dyes in addition to preservatives and flavour enhancers. Yes, you read correctly! Most synthetic food colours that are added to processed foods come from coal-tar and petroleum. Look around and you will find these food dyes everywhere from your flavoured yogurts to fruit juices and breakfast cereals and even some supplements.
What are these food dyes and why do food companies need to make processed food so vibrantly hued? The answer it seems lies in how our senses respond to colourful food and how food manufacturers take advantage of this response.
Importance of colour in food
Tasting food and deriving pleasure from that experience is not just about our tongue and palate. As the saying goes, ‘we first taste with our eyes.’ In fact, tasting can be described as the integration of multiple senses where all the five senses including the vision, smell, taste, touch and even hearing work together to offer us a complete experience, whether memorable or opposite. But eyes can arguably be described as an integral gustatory organ, strongly influencing how we perceive taste in all its entirety.
Studies have shown that changing the colour of popular drinks (while retaining the flavours) can throw even experts off the track and they make mistakes in identifying the flavour. Yes, eyes can easily fool the taste buds as well as the sense of smell. The appearance and colour of the food is indeed this important.
But why do we always find brightly coloured foods more enticing? From the evolutionary perspective, our brain is programmed to pick food that can offer more nutrition. Colourful foods – an assortment of fruits and vegetable with all sorts of red, yellow and green – are a good source of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. Subconsciously, our taste has evolved as a means of finding nutritious food (meaning food with bright, vivid hues) while avoiding poisonous food, for example bitter, rotten and mouldy food or a foul, rancid smell.
Colourful food is more appealing, but is it always good? Not when the colour in question is fake and is pumped into the food intentionally. Our brain judges the quality of the food primarily by its colour and appearance, and food companies manipulate this fact. They use bright, attractive colours to appeal to our senses and cravings and, more often than not, this goal is achieved by using artificial food dyes.
Artificial food dyes Vs Natural Dyes
Food dyes are pigments, or colour additives that are classified as either natural or artificial.
Natural food dyes: Derived from plant sources, such as vegetables, flowers and fruits. Some natural food dyes are also extracted from insects, rocks and even soil.
Artificial food dyes: Synthesized in laboratories using toxic chemicals derived from coal tar and petroleum.
What we need to understand is that food companies are not adding these colours to any fresh food product. Fake colour additives are only added to processed food that has lost all of its nutritional as well as aesthetic value. During processing, natural food is stripped of all the nutrients, fibres, natural colour, texture and flavour. How do you sell this boring, dull looking mass of food? A shot of synthetic food dye does the trick – transforming this unappetizing food into something that now looks nourishing, fresh and appetizing, when it is most definitely not nourishing. Sometimes, fake food colour is also added to enhance the natural colour of the food, to make it more fun.
Food companies prefer artificial food dyes over their natural counterparts because fake dyes are more affordable and are chemically more stable. Synthetic dyes also blend more easily with food and provide intense and a dazzling array of hues.
Should we be concerned? Yes, very. These artificial food dyes are made from coal tar and petroleum. Studies show that the harsh chemicals present in fake food colours trigger many health disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is only the tip of the iceberg.
Artificial food dyes and Health Risks
In 2007, a team of researchers from Southampton University found that some artificial food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate increase the risk of hyperactivity in young children and adversely affect children’s behaviour . This eventually led to the ban on six food colourings, also known as Southampton Six, and now require warning labels in the European Union. The U.S FDA response, however, was really perplexing as it neither recommended any ban on artificial food colouring (AFCs) nor required a warning label.
In 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a detailed report titled, ‘Rainbow of Risks’. The report complied studies and research conducted on food dyes and proved that nine food dyes, which are actually approved by the US FDA, are likely carcinogenic and can cause behavioural problems in both children and adults. Full report is available here.
Many studies before and after this have suggested that artificial food colours can be damaging to health in a number of ways:
- A 2012 review titled ‘Toxicology of Food Dyes’ found that all of the nine US FDA approved food dyes are associated with health risks. It reported that most dyes are carcinogenic. Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, the most commonly and widely used dyes, are contaminated with benzidine or other carcinogens. 
- A study published in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine showed that consuming food laced with Yellow 5 dye results in loss of Zinc from the body and “corresponding deterioration in behaviour/ emotional responses of hyperactive children.”  Our body needs Zinc in trace amounts to perform a myriad of functions (protein synthesis, blood clotting, cognitive and immune functions, sperm production, wound healing, foetal growth), and maintaining overall health. Zinc deficiency has been associated with poor mental functions, impaired immunity, hair loss, diarrhoea, allergies, delayed wound healing, change in taste, loss of appetite, weight loss, impotency and skin conditions like acne and rashes.
- This 1994 study concluded that consumption of tartrazine, or Yellow 5, is associated with “behavioural changes in irritability, restlessness, and sleep disturbance” in some children .
Our children are the most vulnerable
Children are small and their bodies are still growing and developing. Inarguably, it is our children who are getting the biggest dose of rainbow shades pumped into their everyday food. A 2013 study from researchers at Purdue University, in Indiana, found that children could be consuming far more dyes than previously thought . Beverages like fruit juices, soft drinks, energy drinks and food items like breakfast cereals, cakes, candies, ice-creams, cookies, boxed macaroni and cheese, and popsicle are some common food items containing AFCs. In fact, certain medications, both over the counter and prescription drugs also contain these fake colours.
In a nutshell, artificial food dyes are linked to:
- Hyperactivity, hypersensitivity, and learning disorders in children
- Sleeping disorders
- Chromosomal damage
- Formation of tumours and cancer
- Allergies, asthma and skin rashes.
- Birth defects
- Organ damage
- Impaired immunity
- Hormonal imbalance
For the food companies, the only purpose of adding fake colour is to misguide us. They just want to sell junk food by making it look fun and appealing. Can we do something about it? The good news is we can. People are becoming increasingly conscious of the health risks associated with eating highly processed food that has no, or at least very little nutrition. Not surprisingly, people are demanding change. And while the food companies succumb to this pressure and are in the process of modifying their food ingredients, you can do a lot to avoid food products filled with fake, toxic colours.
Stay Tuned for Our Next Series on Artificial Food Dyes.
- Stevenson at al. Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 2007 Nov 3;370(9598):1560-7.
- Kobylewski S1, Jacobson MF. Toxicology of food dyes. Int J Occup Environ Health. 2012
- Ward NI; Soulsbury KA; Zettel VH; Colquhoun ID; Bunday S; Barnes B, The influence of the chemical additive tartrazine on the zinc status of hyperactive children: A double-blind placebo-controlled study. J Nutr Med; 1 (1). 1990. 51-58
- Rowe KS1, Rowe KJ. Synthetic food coloring and behavior: a dose response effect in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, repeated-measures study. J Pediatr. 1994 Nov;125(5 Pt 1):691-8.
- Laura J. Stevens, John R. Burgess, Mateusz A. Stochelski, Thomas Kuczek. Amounts of Artificial Food Dyes and Added Sugars in Foods and Sweets Commonly Consumed by Children. Journal Clinical Pediatrics.