Today, it’s common to see articles that read “A Dangerous Rainbow” or “What are we feeding our children”. The conversation around safety of colors is being led by popular food activists like the “Food Babe”, and artificial food colors have come under fire. Push back from consumers has led top food manufacturers like Kraft and Mars to begin removing artificial food colors from their products. But why are consumers fighting for the death of artificial food dyes and if they are dangerous, why hasn’t the FDA banned them already?

Food dyes have been used for thousands of years, originating around 1500 B.C. These original food dyes came from natural sources like saffron, squid ink, and certain flowers. With the advent of food colorants, food vendors had the ability to misrepresent their products—often for economic gain—by making lower quality foods more appealing to consumers. Often these colorants were toxic, like copper which was used to color pickled vegetables in the 1800’s and Scheele’s green, containing arsenic, which was used to color candies in the early 1900s. Today, the FDA regulates the use of synthetic and natural food colors in Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics. Some food dyes (eg: Red #40) can cause sensitivities, and so food manufacturers are required to label their usage in food products.

Much of the current controversy over food dyes is their potential to promote hyperactivity in children. Hyperactive behavior has been linked to children who suffer from ADHD, and some studies imply that artificial food colors may affect children without behavioral conditions. These studies have prompted the EU to restrict the use of these artificial colors; requiring disclosure text on products with these colorants.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is petitioning the FDA for the second time, to ban the use of all Artificial Food Colors in the food industry. After an initial petition in 2011, an FDA committee ruled that there was not enough conclusive evidence that food dyes cause hyperactivity. The committee concluded that more research was needed before they could prohibit the use of synthetic colors.

Since the 1970s, several studies, often using exclusion diets to study what happens when artificial food colors are removed from the diet have shown improvements in children’s behavior and attention when artificial colors are removed from the diet. However, these diets usually remove other food additives, like preservatives, at the same time; making it difficult to identify a single cause for the behavior changes. Not to mention these studies often use parental or teacher observations to measure child behavior, which is difficult to compare.

One cause of these behavioral effects might be related to aspirin sensitivities. Although pain relievers may seem completely unrelated to food dyes, some food colors, including Yellow #5,have a similar chemical structure to aspirin, both contain salicylic acid residues. In fact, many exclusion diets recommended to treat behavioral problems suggest removing foods containing natural salicylates for the same reason. Other researchers hypothesize that tartrazine (yellow #5) might bind Zinc in the blood. Zinc is necessary for proper brain function and deficiencies can cause behavioral changes. When tartrazine is excreted in urine, any bound zinc would also be excreted.

With growing consumer concerns, retailers are reformulating their products with natural colorants. But consumers have an expectation that some foods need to be brightly colored—and those vibrant shades are often difficult to achieve without the use of artificial food dyes. General Mills is one of many retailers who understands that education is key, and has begun a campaign to show consumers what their foods will look like with natural food colors. If people aren’t prepared for these changes, they may avoid foods creating food waste. Consumers want bright colors and right now there aren’t many natural colors which can replace these bright synthetic dyes. Understanding what the switch will entail is important before artificial colors can be completely replaced. If Cheetos were suddenly pale instead of neon there might not be riots in the streets, but there would certainly be complaints!

This article is part of our on-going series “The Science of Food” which is comprised of essays from students in the M.S. in Food Science program at Chapman University. The essay was originally published on the Food Science Student Association’s blog, which you can read here: