If you’re around my age, you remember the disappearance of the red M&M. One day, they were just…gone. Apparently, folks worried that a red food dye not even used in M&M’s caused cancer.
Well, the red ones came back, but food dyes are back in the news. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is concerned about a possible link between certain food dyes and (presumably bad) child behavior.
Now I don’t really care what color my food is (unless my lettuce is brown and my meat is green), but these dyes are used ubiquitously to make food appear appealing, appetizing, and profitable. Given that these dyes don’t contribute nutritionally, there really is no health reason to use them, but food producers like them because they work; they help sell food.
What’s the claim, and what’s the science?
The CSPI claims that there is an association between certain food dyes and childhood hyperactivity. Part of this is based on the “Feingold Diet” of the 1970’s, which they claim improved hyperactive behavior by eliminating food dyes, and some is based on a limited number of published scientific studies.
The studies of the Feingold diet are not particularly strong. There have been more recent studies of food dyes and behavior. One large, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study published in The Lancet last year found an association in certain limited age groups (3, 8, and 9 year olds), but not others (The Lancet, 370(9598), 3 November 2007-9 November 2007, Pages 1560-1567).
The data are not convincing. The measured behavioral changes were not great. There is a great deal of variability in any single child’s behavior, and there are a myriad of non-controlled effectors of child behavior. When a study finds a statistically significant finding such as this, we must also ask, “is it plausible?”
At this point, there doesn’t appear to be a plausible mechanism for this purported effect. Also, why would these age groups be so much more susceptible than others? There was also a great deal of variability among children, not just among groups, which makes explaining correlations difficult (but not impossible).
The European Food Safety Authority has rejected these findings. Should we?
Of all the factors that can affect children’s health, positively and negatively (infectious agents, seat belts, vaccines, bike helmets), any food dye effect would appear to be quite minimal.
That being said, what use are food dyes?
To the consumer, food dyes are not much use at all. To the manufacturers, well, that’s another story. Of course, many of the anti-food dye folks also go after common preservatives, without which our foods would be more dangerous and less palatable.
I wouldn’t rush to empty my cupboard of dyed products, but like any other industrially produced and consumed product, it’s good to ask questions, questions like “what is the risk” and “what is the benefit”. It would appear that the risk is small. It would appear that the benefit to consuming them is non-existent. The next question is, is there any point in banning a probably harmless but (to the consumer) useless substance?