Food for thought…
Above: A fun cartoon of an Easter bunny reading a newspaper article about FDA restricting food dye use on Easter eggs, suggesting that food dyes might not be entirely safe.
Food coloring is a very common additive to our food. Many processed food we consume contain this substance in order to provide consumers with the “expected color” for a particular food. For instance, consumers expect banana or lemon puddings to be yellow while they expect their oranges to have brilliantly orange skin (yes, orange food coloring is sometimes injected into the skin of oranges to give off-season and not-so-great-looking oranges the bright orange color that we usually see in very well grown oranges).
Studies have shown that when a food does not have the expected color, it is perceived to taste different from the same food that does have the expected color. A study on the effect of food coloring on the perceived taste of Cheetos with the normal cheesy-looking orange color and Cheetos without the fo¬¬¬od coloring (which leaves it in a grayish color) discovered that consumers found the regular Cheetos to taste cheesier and that they derived a lot of pleasure from eating these Cheetos. In contrast, consumers who ate the gray Cheetos didn’t like them very much and reported that these Cheetos didn’t have the same amount of cheese as the regular colored Cheetos although both Cheetos were exactly the same except for the color. Because food coloring or food dyes are tasteless, it can be concluded from this study that the perceived difference in the taste of the Cheetos is entirely psychological; the difference in taste is generated by expectations. Based on results like this, it is no wonder that the food industry depends so heavily on the usage of food coloring in the production of its food. And this industry is reluctant to add a warning label on its food to inform consumers that ingesting food coloring could possibly cause undesirable side effects such as increasing hyperactivity in ADHD patients and causing ADHD-like symptoms in non-ADHD populations.
Using food coloring has the benefits of allowing consumers to have a better experience with the food they eat and allowing food companies to sell more of their products. However, is food coloring safe to consume? As mentioned above, food coloring could cause undesirable health problems in some consumers, and recent research supporting the link between hyperactivity and food dye use renewed the concern that the regulation on the use of this potentially harmful substance is not strict enough. Despite the findings of new research, a committee at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted, on March 31, 2011, to continue to allow the use of food dyes without warning labels. This decision is based on the committee’s belief that data generated from recent research do not produce enough evidence that food dyes could cause hyperactivity in most children, especially those that do not have ADHD. Therefore food companies should not be required to add warning labels that could unnecessarily damage sales.
Like research for many other food additives such as aspartame and MSG, research into the safety of food coloring has not yet provided strong data proving the safety or the harmfulness of food dyes. Therefore, it is hard to decide whether we should continue to consume these artificial substances or not. For now, this decision is based on personal preference rather than government regulations. However, it is important to be informed of these issues and to evaluate new research data objectively in order to make the best decision on whether to consume or not consume these food additives. Maybe we will be surprised * in what we will find out in the future!
* I just want to share this interesting fact: The coloring agent Brilliant Blue G (BBG), a relative of the approved food dye Brilliant Blue FCF (FD&C Blue No. 1), had been found to protect motor neurons in the spinal cord of rats that had experienced spine injury and thus allowing them to recover part of their mobility. This finding led to the hope that BBG could be used to treat humans who have experienced similar spinal injures. Currently, more research is being done on BBG. Who knows, perhaps in the not distant future, BBG’s relative Brilliant Blue FCF, the one we consume, turns out to be neuro-protective also, and those who consume more blue M&Ms’ have a better chance at recovering from spinal injury if it does happen.