The truth about food dyes

Frosting on a birthday cake, breakfast cereals, a bag of candy, your favorite cookies, a cup of yogurt, soft drinks, popsicles, those crunchy crackers, condiments, and even macaroni and cheese. Food dyes have found their way into almost every processed food you will find on grocery store shelves.

For years, food-coloring additives have been accepted as harmless. They’re regulated by government bodies, right? Recent studies, however, have begun to question their safety.

What Are Food Dyes?

Food dyes are chemicals used to change the color of a food so it looks more appealing to eat. Dyes are added to food that’s naturally bland or colorless. They’re added to foods that tend to change color over time or aren’t uniform in color. And of course, they’re also put in foods to make the food look fun and enticing to children. This practice has two advantages to manufacturers. It prolongs the shelf life of products and generates more income for manufacturers.

There are two types of food colorings: natural and synthetic. Natural coloring can be derived from the pigments of minerals, animals, spices, or plants and have been used for hundreds of years. If you see beta-carotene, caramel color, saffron, paprika, annatto, blueberry juice extract, beet juice, or grape skin extract on an ingredient label, these are natural food colorings and are safe to consume.

A little over 100 years ago, scientists developed new ways of creating food dyes by using coal tar and other chemicals. These synthetic colors are easier to produce and therefore save manufacturers money. They also reduce the risk of possible toxins found in natural substances. Examples of synthetic food dyes include blue numbers 1 and 2, green number 3, yellow numbers 5 and 6, and red numbers 3 and 40. Look on a package of snack food in your cupboard and you’ll likely see one or more of these seven ingredients, as an amazing 15 million pounds of them are added to foods in the U.S. alone each year.

Are They Safe?

Food dyes may make food look pretty and tasty, but prominent food safety groups have called their possible health risks into question. Still considered safe and allowed in the United States, several of these synthetic dyes are banned in the United Kingdom and other European countries because of their health risks.

Ever wonder why your kids are bouncing off the walls and running around the house screaming? It may be from the “fruit” juice and macaroni they had for lunch. Synthetic food dyes have been associated with increased hyperactivity in children, allergic reactions, and an increased risk for cancer. Three are known carcinogens, four can cause serious allergic reactions, and seven of them were found to cause cancer in lab animals.

The government in the U.S. has acknowledged red number 3 to be a known carcinogen, but has deemed these food dye chemicals safe based on how much is consumed and what they are made of. A piece of candy here or there probably won’t hurt you, but what about colored cereal for breakfast, colored beverages all day, colored macaroni for lunch, colored snack foods, and colored condiments with dinner?

What Can You Do?

It’s hard not to feel helpless when it comes to the toxins present in so much of your food. How can you avoid them? First of all, read ingredient labels like a hawk. Don’t purchase foods with the synthetic colorings listed above. Second, if you feel led, join a consumer advocacy group to petition manufacturers and government agencies to adopt stricter food safety policies.

There’s good news. Food can still be colorful and look appealing with natural colorants like the ones previously listed. It may cost a few cents more, but the health of your family is worth it, don’t you think?

Sidestep the Colors

Want to totally avoid food coloring? Then avoid anything that is pre-packaged. Instead, go with fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats.

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