In the grocery store, you will find rows and rows of food in cans, bags, shrink-wrapped packages, boxes and containers. The food looks brighter than you would think after sitting on shelves for a while. There is a reason for that.
Food additives are substances that are added to foods to enhance it in some way. Preservatives prolong shelf life and keep fats from going bad within the food. Artificial flavoring makes foods taste better than they might normally taste, especially frozen foods. Food coloring gives food a bright and inviting look so you’ll want to taste it.
But, what are these additives really like in foods and in the body? Are they affecting us and our children in different ways that haven’t been considered?
All of these questions are on the minds of parents and other concerned citizens. Food additives are not banned in this country but many believe that they should be.
In this article we will be talking about a particular additive, artificial food coloring. This has been in our food for years. Just look at the labels. No, this doesn’t mean that these additives should stay, but we’ll get to that later.
Your food may be more appetizing to the eye and even to the tongue, but discovering the dangers behind these food coloring additives can help you to make an informed decision the next time you shop.
What Are Artificial Food Colorings?
A History of Food Coloring
Food colorings have been used since ancient times. When color was needed, spices, flowers, and juices from fruits and vegetables were employed to do the job. Minerals and ores were also used but were found to be dangerous. If the concentration was off even a little bit, the result was a poisonous food that could not be eaten.
Artificial food colorings began as additives that enhanced the way that food looked in shop windows. When you see food, what makes you want to eat it? If the color is bright then you think that the food is fresher somehow. It is a trick of the eye and the brain that has worked for manufacturers for ages.
In early history, food colorings were derived from natural sources. This went for medications and/or cosmetics too. If you wanted red coloring for a cake, you added red beet root juice to the mixture. This not only provided a deep color but also a certain flavor. For other colors, different spices could be used with water to bring out the desired look.
But, technology evolves. After World War II, scientists discovered that they could manufacture coloring additives artificially and cheaper than using food sources. The colorings that went into food were created in labs or extracted from dyes. People didn’t notice the difference. Certain colored items may even have become a bit cheaper owing to the new process.
Many of these artificial colorings were derived from petroleum-based products. It extended shelf life and that was important at the time. According to the government, as long as the chemical used in the food wasn’t at a level that would kill half of the test animals in the group, it was deemed safe for human consumption. There were no tests that measured toxicity as it related to behavior in humans or animals.
In the 1930s an act was put in place that called for regulation of color additives to foods, drugs and cosmetic products. When artificial colorings were added to the line-up, they also had to be regulated and included in this act (in 1960).
What were the advantages of artificial food colorings? For one, they could be produced in quantity. It was also discovered that they maintained their shelf life for a long time. Colors didn’t run or fade over time in the packages. Artificial colorings added no additional nutritional value to the food.
New methods of manufacturing have been developed and the use of coloring additives has increased. You don’t just see the coloring in candy or jelly beans. It can be found in soft drinks, popsicles, ice cream and even fish.
Yes, we said fish. Dyes are added to some salmon to keep it looking bright in the package. It apparently works. If you saw a lighter-colored salmon and a brighter piece of fish, which would you buy?
Types of Artificial Food Coloring
In case you are not familiar with artificial food colorings, here are some of the more common ones that you might find on food labels and where they are used. The following are ones that have been allowed by the FDA. They are called certified dyes because they are man-made.
They dissolve in water so they are used in certain formulations like gelatin powders that have to be dissolvable. Lakes are dyes that do not dissolve and work better with fats. As such, they have to be tested for efficacy before being used in foods.
- Blue No. 1 – This coloring can be found in sodas, icings, candy, syrups and desserts – to name a few
- Blue No. 2 – Found in snack foods, candy, and ice cream and baked goods
- Red No. 40 – Gelatins, puddings, ice cream, dairy products and drinks
- Green No.3 – Cherries, drinks, sherbet, pudding, dairy products
- Red No.3 – Cherries, fruit salad, dairy products, baked goods and snacks
- Red No. 17 – Candy, sauces, snacks and drinks
- Yellow No. 5 – Cereals, preserves, custard, drinks, ice cream
- Yellow No. 6 – Ice cream, cereals, confections, drinks, snack foods
- Orange B – Hot dogs, sausages
Natural coloring additives that are not man-made are not certified. These are allowed because they are organic. They come from vegetables, animals and can even be a man-made creation but from a natural source. These include:
- Caramel color
- Titanium dioxide
- Vegetable juice
- Fruit juice
- Beet powder
The certification process tests artificial colorings for safe levels that are usually consumed in a certain product. Over time, people have changed and so has the environment. More research is being done that is raising the question as to whether food coloring additives, even those that are certified by the FDA, are harming our children. Many of the food dyes are also being used in cosmetics and hair products.
Dangers of Eating Artificial Food Coloring
Problems That They May Cause
More concerned citizens are calling for a ban on certain artificial colorings. What is called into question is the fact that they are man-made. These substances are often created in labs using highly toxic substances. The question is whether these beginnings are what are affecting us today. The effects are particularly noticed by those who have chemical sensitivities.
All is not known about the manufacturing methods used to create many of the dyes that we use. Some are created from petroleum. For those who don’t know, that is fuel. Others use coal tar for synthesis. This is also a chemical that you wouldn’t want on your dinner table. Acetone is used in nail polish remover, but it may also be a component of some of the artificial colorings that are present in foods today.
If this had gotten you concerned, then keep reading about the problems that some research has identified as possibly being attributed to artificial colorings.
- Blue No. 1 – Cancer risk has been associated with this artificial coloring. In laboratory animals, cancerous tumors have grown after exposure to Blue No. 1.
- Yellow No.6 – This is being linked to problems of the kidneys and adrenals.
- Red No. 40 – This artificial coloring is under scrutiny right now. It is being tested for a correlation between ADHD and increased hyperactivity after consumption. This color is prevalent in snack foods. Children with a sensitivity to this chemical may show a worsening of their symptoms. Even people who are not diagnosed with ADHD may notice changes in behavior after consumption of Red no. 40.
- Blue No.1 and 3 are also being looked at as having something to do with male sterility.
- Yellow No. 5 – Exposure to this color has led to a multitude of symptoms being present. These include headaches, dizziness, anxiety, asthma attacks and behavioral problems.
Many of the problems that are being noticed are happening in kids. Kids are still in a state of development. As their bodies grow, they are more sensitive to many compounds than the rest of us. Coloring additives are so heavily used that it is in many of the favorite snack foods, drinks and other foods that they like to eat.
Are Any of Them Safe?
If you must consume food coloring additives, try the ones that are made from natural sources. However, even these can be harmful in large doses. The best way to see what you can eat is to try an experiment.
Eliminate as many food additives as you can from your diet. Notice any behavioral and health changes that occur. If you notice that you are healthier, with better numbers (cholesterol, blood pressure), then changing your diet was beneficial.
One by one, reintroduce an additive to the diet and see which ones you are sensitive to. This experiment can take several months to complete but it will be worth it.
Something similar is done with ADHD children and the Feingold diet. Dr. Feingold was a pediatrician and an allergist who was concerned about diet and the hyperactivity of ADHD children. His diet did not prove conclusively that children with ADHD were better without additives but for some, the symptoms did lessen over time. And in combination with medication, the children felt better able to handle their condition.
Do your research. Look into the manufacturing of different artificial food colorings. Read the ongoing studies. Make an informed decision before you decide on major life changes for you and your family. Begin with the information in this report to get you started.
How to Protect Yourself and Your Family
Read Food Labels
It is always important to know what is in the foods that you eat. Since the 1990s, food labels have been required to list food additives in their entirety so that consumers know what they are getting. This may still not clarify what Yellow No. 5 is, but you can at least be aware of it and do some digging.
There is one thing about food labels. Items listed under the ingredients are listed in order of their quantity in each serving. If you have an item that claims to be fat free but the second ingredient is palm kernel oil, then you know they are not holding up to their claims. The same goes for cosmetics and other products.
So, look at how many preservatives are in your foods. We have given you a short list of food coloring additives so can learn to recognize them.
Tips for Staying Away from Artificial Food Colorings
It may not be possible to avoid all of them but you can avoid many of these food colorings with a few simple steps.
- Limit processed foods – If a food has a long shelf life, then there is some sort of additive somewhere in it. Read the label. Avoid putting frozen meals, processed sweets, bagged chips and puddings in your shopping cart.
- Shop alone – This is a good idea so that you won’t spend too much money and also so that kids don’t scream for candy and other processed desserts. They will go for the brightly-colored foods behind the packaging. That is what manufacturers want, but what you need to avoid in order to stay away from artificial additives.
- Eat more fresh fruit – Fresh fruits do go bad faster so only buy what you need for the present. Shop at farmer’s markets and in the fresh produce section of your grocery store. Don’t just look at the color but feel for ripeness. Natural fruits have greater nutrition and deeper flavors.
- Opt for unprocessed meats – Visit the butcher shop. You can get a good deal on meat in bulk and the cuts that you want. Cooking at home eliminates the need for extra processing and colorings.
- Season foods with natural spices – Don’t let the manufacturer do it for you. Use fresh or dried seasonings on your food dishes. Kids can taste the flavor and learn to appreciate it.
- Choose fresh vegetables – Color is not everything. Check for spots, rotten places and smell to see if it is fresh. Teach kids how to pick fresh foods.
- Start a garden – This can cut down on food costs also. What a treat for kids to just be able to go outside and pick a fresh apple or a cabbage out of the garden. It’s like having your own grocery store in the back yard.
- Opt for natural alternatives – There is a short list of natural coloring agents. These are safer for children to ingest. You can also opt for organic food colorings in stores. These are more expensive but they are also safer.
If you want to make your own food coloring additives, here are some suggestions:
– Green coloring extracted from spinach
– Yellow coloring extracted from saffron or caramelized sugar
– Red coloring extracted from beet juice or paprika
– Purple coloring extracted from juice of the red cabbage
– Lighter purple coloring extracted from blueberries
Food Additives to Avoid
This is a short list of food additives that you might want to be on the lookout for. Know their names and aliases.
- BHA/BHT – butylated hydroxyanisole/ butylated hydroxytoluene
- Propyl gallate
- Sodium nitrate – found in lunch meats, hot dogs and other processed meats
- MSG – monosodium glutamate (found in sauces and meat tenderizers)
- Certified food coloring additives – These are listed in a previous section. They are all usually written with ‘FD&C’ before their color and number, signifying that they are approved by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
While all of the research together has proven inconclusive on either side, many still believe that these artificial colorings need to be tested further by the FDA before saying that they are still as safe now as they might have seemed many years ago when the laws on regulation were first enacted.
Use the suggestions above to help you do what is best for your family and their health. Only you can decide if there is a sensitivity to these products and it is affecting your children. With alternatives to artificial colorings, you don't have to take the chance unless you want to.
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