They're used to make strawberry sundaes red and cheeses yellow, but some say synthetic food dyes might also contribute to hyperactivity in children.
Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a petition to ban Yellow 5, Red 40, and six other artificial colorings used in foods, including those served at many quick-serves. The group, a watchdog advocating nutrition and food safety, cites research linking the dyes to hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children.
According to the CSPI petition, about 3–10 percent of school-aged children in the U.S. suffer from hyperactivity, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or related behavioral problems. The petition points to a diet free from synthetic food dyes developed in the 1970s by pediatrician Dr. Ben Feingold that might reduce symptoms of hyperactivity in children. It also cites numerous scientific studies that at least partially substantiate the Feingold Diet as a way to help curb behavioral problems.
"Some kids wouldn't be affected, some kids would benefit very significantly," CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson says of a ban. "And since there's no real benefit from the dyes, it's worth protecting those kids who would benefit."
Synthetic dyes are found in many foods in the U.S., Jacobson says, with likely candidates including cookies, candies, cakes, and breakfast cereals. In its petition, the CSPI included a list of fast feeders whose menus contain dyes the group is seeking to ban. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC, Subway, and Jack in the Box all made the list.
"Those were just the easy ones for us to find," Jacobson adds.
But he says quick-service restaurants are not the worst offenders when it comes to carrying foods that contain dyes.
"Most restaurants don't have all that many foods that are artificially colored," he says. "They're in beverages typically, maybe in some cakes, and sometimes in the candies mixed in with ice creams. The problem is much bigger in grocery stores."
Several of the dyes have already been phased out in the United Kingdom after two government-sponsored studies, Jacobson says. One quick-service chain, McDonald's, uses natural coloring from strawberries in its strawberry sundaes in that market, while using Red 40 to color the U.S. version of the item.
"Red 40 and Yellow 5 are two out of nine certified commonly used food color additives approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the United States," says Susan Forsell, vice president of Quality Systems for McDonald's USA, in a statement. "… Like all food companies, we continue to look to the FDA and other experts for further guidance on food safety.”
Even so, Jacobson says eliminating dyes from restaurant menus wouldn't be an unprecedented challenge.
"It's like [eliminating] trans fat," he says. "Companies change their frying oil, and they get on with life. There's an easy substitute for partially hydrogenated oil and also for food dyes."
Jane Hersey, director of the Feingold Association of the United States, a group advocating the Feingold Diet, says some manufacturers already offer alternatives to popular products that contain synthetic food dyes, such as Frito-Lay's Cheetos Natural White Cheddar Puffs. While she acknowledges that using natural coloring can sometimes be more expensive, it doesn't always have to be.
"There's a preconceived idea that if it's healthy it will taste bad or be more expensive and that you can't have it both ways," she says. "But you really can."
"The cost of the coloring is just an absolutely trivial part of the cost of the product, whether at a grocery store or at a restaurant," he says, adding that a ban at the government level would make the switch even easier. The change could then be made on the manufacturing level, so individual restaurant operators wouldn't have to sort out products containing the dyes and select alternatives.
The Feingold Association puts out guides to help its members—about 25,000 of whom receive e-mail newsletters from the association—to help them stick to the diet when dining out at restaurants. Hersey praises chains such as O'Naturals, Better Burger, and Chicken Out Rotisserie for their dye-free options and encourages other chains to look at their ingredient lists as well.
"We would like for these restaurants to be successful and profitable," she says. "We're not trying to do anything negative. We just want to be able to take our kids there to eat."