Having my first child while co-writing Unjunk Your Junk Food made me keenly aware of the effects of artificial colours. Not having taken them too seriously before -- even as a nutritionist, I'm ashamed to admit -- watching my one-year-old go bonkers after inadvertently ingesting a "healthy" yogurt drink containing a red dye was enough to convince me that artificial colours in our food are trouble, and not just in my home.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been criticized by organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) for not taking the numerous testimonials -- and especially the science -- linking artificial colors to symptoms such as hyperactivity, allergic reactions and other health concerns seriously enough. What surprises me, however, is that Canada is lagging behind the U.S. when it comes to the labelling and awareness of the potential hazards related to ingesting artificial colours.
In the U.S., all food and drink labels must list the specific colours they contain. The FDA assigns FD&C (Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic) numbers to artificial dyes and provides a separate list for colours deriving from natural sources.
Currently in Canada, food manufacturers are only required to list the term 'colour' on an ingredients list and are not obligated to specify which particular colour or mix of colours are included in the ingredients (although manufacturers have the option to disclose them. Tartrazine is often specifically mentioned on labels). This poses a health challenge for those who have identified sensitivities to particular dyes, especially since the food itself isn't always a good indicator of which particular colour was used to make it. For example, you'd never know by looking at a bright white marshmallow that it might contain Blue No.1.
Compounding the confusion, Health Canada's list of artificial colours is combined with natural dyes, most of which are safe.
Google "artificial colors" (American spelling) and you'll find hundreds of links to consumer groups (Feingold.org is one of the most outspoken), health sites, and blogs warning the public about the dangers of artificial additives, especially colours. A search of Canadian sites, however, may leave one with the impression that Canadians aren't as concerned. I scrolled through several pages before finding a single consumer link.
Someone in Canada evidently knows what's going on, though. Consumers badgered Nestle enough to convince them to replace the artificial colours with dyes made from natural sources in Smarties candy. Impressively, they have also replaced vanillin, the only artificial flavour previously included in the Smarties recipe, with real vanilla.
Sadly, some companies are reverting back to their original, unhealthy recipes due to a drop in sales. Necco's sales plunged by 35 per cent following a sincere effort to go "all natural."
In 2007, two reports published in scientific journals suggested a link between artificial food additives and hyperactivity in children. As a result, the UK Food Standards Agency proposed that manufacturers voluntarily remove a number of colours from food products and drinks.
Though the FDA continues to deny any significant link between food dyes and behavioural problems, Health Canada agrees with the conclusions of these studies and is proposing changes to the regulations governing how food colours are labelled. Letters (dated February 2010) have been sent to food manufacturers and interested consumers requesting feedback on the proposed changes. So while it doesn't look like artificial colours will be banned in Canada anytime soon, more detailed labelling of food dyes known to cause adverse reactions will likely become mandatory... eventually.
A few of the artificial colours currently approved for use in foods and beverages in Canada include:
Allura Red (E129), FD&C Red 40, used in candy and desserts, beverages, condiments, and pharmaceutical drugs has been linked with cancer, but studies have been inconsistent. Asthmatics and those intolerant to aspirin are at increased risk of a reaction to this food dye, which is banned in many European countries.
Indigotine (E132), FD&C Blue No. 2, added to pharmaceutical drugs, desserts, beverages and pet food, has been known to cause nausea, high blood pressure, skin rashes, breathing problems and other allergic reactions.
Sunset Yellow (E110), FD&C Yellow No. 6, is used in cereals, baked goods, ice cream, beverages, canned fish, and some medications including DayQuil capsules and Extra Strength Tylenol. It's been associated with allergies, including rhinitis and nasal congestion, hyperactivity in children, nausea, and should be avoided by asthmatics.
Tartrazine (E102) FD&C Yellow No. 5, has been linked to cancer and is known to provoke asthma attacks, skin reactions, and hyperactivity in children. It's in soft drinks and energy drinks, cake mixes, salty snacks, dried fruit, cereals, packaged soups and more.
Citrus Red No. 2, used to colour oranges, is considered "possibly carcinogenic to humans" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Health Canada approves a number of natural dyes for use in foods and beverages, including beet juice, beta-carotene, grape skin extract, paprika, fruit and vegetable juices and saffron. While most are considered safe, a few, including annatto extract and cochineal extract (or carmine), a crimson-red colour made from the scales of the cochineal insect, have been linked with allergic reactions.
If you or your child are prone to hyperactivity, or have ADD/ADHD or other behavioural concerns, read all food ingredient labels carefully, and be observant of any reactions that might occur shortly after ingesting a food containing artificial colours.
The complete list of dyes permitted for use in foods and beverages in Canada are listed in Table III of section B.16.100 of the Food and Drug Regulations.