Just last week, at another of the kids’ birthday parties one (apparently) must attend as the parent of a kindergartener, I found myself once more huddled in a corner, stealthily scraping away the brightly colored frosting from the top of a piece of cake. I was seething with resentment—although I felt none at all toward the entirely well-intentioned parents of the birthday boy. Instead, I was frustrated that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is failing to protect the health and well-being of an estimated half a million children, including my own daughter, who are at risk from synthetic food dyes.
As it so happens, I’m also a lawyer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that fights for a better, healthier food supply. We’ve been working with scientists for the past year on a new report, just published, describing the scientific evidence that shows kids can be harmed by food dyes.
Food Dyes Linked to Behavioral Problems for Some Children
We found there is an emerging consensus among scientists that food dyes are linked to behavioral problems in susceptible kids. This sensitivity to food dyes likely impacts some half a million kids across the United States. We estimated that the likely financial cost of keeping synthetic dyes in food could be as high as $5 billion every year, in addition to the considerable pain that families experience in dealing with these completely avoidable behavioral problems in affected kids.
This is no surprise for anyone dealing with these issues. More than two thousand parents have written us emails over the past few years, painting a detailed—and harrowing—picture of the chaos that dyes inflict on their children and families, including episodes of inattention, anger and irritability, and even violence. Classmates, teachers and other family members, of course, often suffer right along with the affected child. I never knew my child until we took our four-year-old off dyes, wrote one mom. Another told us that their experiments with removing dyes were a last resort before medicating their child for attention deficit disorder, and of their relief, after years of struggle, that such a simple change worked and that they never had to take that step. Parent after parent wrote us about the skepticism or ignorance of their doctors about food-related reactions, and how alone they felt. Many families also told us that, once they had figured out the connection to dyes, their child would avoid them—even on their own—because they hated how the dyes made them feel.
A few even made videos about their family’s struggle, and some of their stories brought tears to my eyes. My parents could have written their own account, but managed to figure out the problem with me on their own after a particularly awful 4th of July encounter with a red-white-and-blue Rocket Pop. Mystery solved! Still, I know first-hand how parents and kids can be affected by dyes—and how dyes can diminish the focus and attention that all kids need to learn, thrive, and grow. Because there is evidence of genetic influences on a child’s sensitivity to dyes, I’ve also tried to ensure that my five-year-old avoids them whenever we can manage it.
Food Dyes are Ubiquitous
But that’s not easy, as I’ve learned. Food dyes are not only ubiquitous at birthday parties, but in the drinks at the pool, and at summer camp in the Popsicles. Most Halloween candy has dyes, as do breakfast cereals, yogurt tubes, fruit snacks, and other child-oriented foods. Yet in Europe, where a break-through pair of British studies showed that dyes affected children even in the general population (that is, kids without any diagnosed behavior problems), a requirement for a warning label on foods containing dyes led many companies to stop using synthetic dyes, even in some of the same foods sold here in the United States that still contain them. So while a McDonald’s Strawberry Sundae uses Red 40 in America, in Europe that red color comes from actual strawberries. Even M&Ms use natural colorings (except for one blue dye) in Europe, and still have the synthetic colors here, leading mom Renee Shutters to start a Change.org petition asking Mars to give American kids the same protections European children already have.
Given the mounting scientific evidence that dyes can cause harm to kids, such changes seem obvious to me. Synthetic dyes serve no nutritional purpose, and instead are often used to mask the absence of real fruits and vegetables in foods and drinks. Our kids should be eating a rainbow of real foods. Getting rid of synthetic dyes would be a meaningful first step that could help kids make better choices. In addition, and even more critically, it would make it far easier for an estimated half a million affected children to avoid the triggering effects of dyes altogether.
Calling for a Ban on Food Dyes
CSPI published the new report to inform parents, put pressure on the FDA to ban dyes (or, at the least, require a warning label), and pressure companies to drop dyes from their products in the United States in the meantime. But we need your help. Public pressure is the only way that the government or companies will change their policies to protect children from dyes. After launching the report, we’ve started a petition to ask the FDA to withdraw its approvals for dyes, and will be doing targeted campaigns focusing on particular companies in the comings months as well.
It seems to me that the first priority of any food system should be to protect children from harm. Please join the campaign to ban dyes, contribute your stories if your family faces similar issues, spread the word wide and far, and help us to ensure that the rules governing food protect all children from harm. Banning dyes is an achievable step that will improve the safety of the food supply. Working together, we can—and will—get it done, so no more families and children have to struggle for years to figure out the dyes puzzle for themselves.