By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 3 February 2010)
Colourants are added to foods to offset colour losses caused by exposure to air, light, moisture, and extreme temperatures; to create a uniform colour throughout a product; and to make foods appear tastier or more fun. Artificial colours are usually less expensive and easier to produce than natural colours.
Risks Associated with Common Artificial Colours
Research has linked artificial colours to a variety of health and behavioural problems, particularly in children. The following is a summary of the risks associated with commonly used artificial food colourings. Because each of the additives is known by a variety of names, all common names are provided.
Allura Red/FD&C Red 40/E129/Food Red 17
Research suggests that Allura Red may cause cancer in animals and allergic reactions in people. It has also been associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms (such as restlessness, poor concentration, diminished academic performance, impulsiveness, temper tantrums, and antisocial behaviour) in children. This additive is banned in a number of European countries, but commonly used in North America.
Amaranth/FD&C Red 2/E123/Food Red 9
Amaranth has been linked to cancer, fertility problems, and increased risk for stillbirth in rats, as well as asthma, eczema, and ADHD in humans. This additive is banned in many countries worldwide, including the U.S., but permitted in Canada.
Brilliant Blue/FD&C Blue 1/E133/Food Blue 2/Acid Blue 9
This additive has been associated with allergic reactions in people and caused malignant tumours in rats. Brilliant Blue has been banned in a number of countries, though some have since reapproved it.
Carmoisine has been linked to cancer in animals and allergic reactions in humans, as well as ADHD symptoms in children. Carmoisine is banned in a number of countries, including Canada, the U.S., Japan, Sweden, and Norway, but is commonly used in the UK.
Citrus Red No. 2/Solvent Red 80
This dye, which causes cancer in animals and may damage internal organs, is applied only to the skins of Florida oranges.
Erythrosine/FD&C Red 3/E127/Acid Red 51/Food Red 14
Erythrosine causes thyroid tumours in rats and possibly gene mutation and hyperthyroidism as well. In addition, it may cause hyperactivity in children. Erythrosine has been banned in the U.S. and a number of other countries, but is permitted in Canada.
Fast Green FCF/FD&C Green 3/E143/Food Green 3
Fast Green FCF has provoked allergic reactions in people and caused genetic mutations and cancerous tumours in animals. Fast Green FCF is banned in the UK.
Indigotine/FD&C Blue 2/E132/Indigo Carmine/Food Blue 1
Evidence suggests that Indigotine may cause brain tumours in rats. This artificial colour has also been associated with hyperactivity in children and allergic reactions in susceptible individuals.
Ponceau 4R/Brilliant Scarlet 4R/E124/Acid Red 18
This additive has been banned in many countries, including Canada and the U.S. Potential problems include bad reactions among asthmatics and those who are sensitive to acetylsalicylic acid (ASA, most commonly known by the brand name ASPIRIN®). Ponceau 4R may also cause cancer in animals.
Ponceau SX/FD&C Red 4/E125/Scarlet GN/Food Red 2
Ponceau SX may cause allergic reactions in susceptible individuals, and was found to damage the bladders and adrenal glands of dogs and other animals.
Quinoline Yellow/E104/Food Yellow 13
Quinoline Yellow has been associated with ADHD, asthma, and rashes. This additive is banned in many countries including the U.S., Japan, and Canada, but permitted in the UK.
Sunset Yellow/FD&C Yellow 6/E110/Orange Yellow S/Food Yellow 3
This additive caused kidney and adrenal tumours in research animals, and has been known to provoke particularly nasty reactions in people, which may include swelling, rashes, stomach pain, and vomiting. Sunset yellow may also cause or worsen ADHD symptoms in children. In addition, this colourant may cause chromosomal damage in animals.
Tartrazine/FD&C Yellow 5/E102/Food Yellow 4
Tartrazine can cause rashes, migraines, asthma, and anaphylaxis in susceptible individuals. Reactions are most likely among asthma sufferers and those who are sensitive to ASA. Studies have linked tartrazine to hyperactivity in children and thyroid tumours in animals. Tartrazine has been banned in some countries.
The Benefits of Eliminating Artificial Colours
Evidence is inconclusive regarding many of the health risks posed by artificial colours. Studies linking additives to cancer, fertility problems, and chromosome damage have used animals consuming relatively high doses. Thus, it’s difficult to determine the risk these additives pose to humans.
However, artificial colours are unnecessary as they provide no nutritional value, and there is strong evidence that they can have a detrimental effect on children. One particularly noteworthy study involved 803 public schools in New York City that eliminated certain artificial flavours, colours, and preservatives from breakfasts and lunches. Over the course of the four-year study, standardized test scores rose dramatically, and nearly 75,000 children that had previously been classified as low-achieving or learning disabled achieved age-appropriate academic performance. Additional research has found that up to half of all children suffering from hyperactivity improved when artificial colours and salicylates were removed from their diets.
Artificial colours are commonly found in:
- baked goods
- beverages (alcoholic drinks, sodas, juices, sports drinks)
- cooking and baking mixes
- dairy products (yogurts, ice creams, cheeses)
- food in cans or jars (fruits, vegetables, seafood, meats)
- fruit fillings
- pet foods
- processed foods (especially junk foods such as candy and chips)
- sausages and salamis
The best defense against the potentially health-damaging effects of artificial colours is to read food labels and support legislation banning artificial colourants in food.
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