In the U.S., food and beverage companies disclose
artificial coloring on labels, but do not disclose specific amounts.
Several studies have suggested some children may be sensitive to
artificial coloring or the preservatives that often accompany it.
The dyes have been linked to inattention and hyperactivity.
For the new study, researchers bought and tested common processed
foods to find out how much artificial coloring they included.
“Very few of these products were nutritious,” said Laura J. Stevens,
who worked on the study at Purdue University in West Lafayette,
Children probably consume more of the heavily dyed foods, since
bright colors appeal to kids, she said.
“We don’t need to make these products appeal more to kids, kids are
already obese,” she told Reuters Health.
Among breakfast cereals, Fruity Cheerios, Trix and Cap’n Crunch’s
OOPS! All Berries had the most artificial dyes, with about 32, 36
and 41 milligrams per serving, respectively.
These cereals also had some of the highest sugar contents. Cap’n
Crunch’s OOPS! All Berries contained 15 grams of sugar per serving,
according to the analysis published in Clinical Pediatrics.
Most of the highly colored cereals contained Red #40, Yellow #6,
Yellow #5 or Blue #1, the most popular artificial colors. But some
cereals, like Special K Red Berries and Berry Berry Kix, were
colored with strawberries or fruit juice and contained no artificial
Numbered artificial colors are derived from petroleum, Stevens
Candies, cakes and colored icings also had large amounts of
artificial colors. A serving of M&M’s Milk Chocolate included almost
30 milligrams of artificial colors, and a packet of original
Skittles had 33 milligrams.
The same group of researchers published a similar study on beverages
in September of 2013 and found that dyes in the drinks varied
widely. Some clear sodas, like Sprite, contained no coloring, while
Kool-Aid Burst Cherry contained more than 52 milligrams per serving.
In general, more brightly colored foods and drinks had more dyes in
them, Stevens said. But some heavily dyed foods were unexpected.
“Some white foods have dye, like marshmallows, and French dressing
and cherry pie fillings actually had color enhancers too,” she said.
“There are also dyes in pediatric medicines, personal care products,
mouthwash and toothpaste,” she said.
Natural color alternatives are available, but those don’t stand up
to heat, processing and light, Stevens said.
The study coincides with a report from the Environmental Working
Group suggesting high levels of sugar in cereals are contributing to
childhood obesity and other health problems (see Reuters story of
May 15, 2014 here: http://reut.rs/1grjWHN).
PepsiCo and Kraft Foods, makers of Cap'n Crunch and Kool-Aid,
respectively, did not immediately respond when reached for comment.
General Mills said dye levels in Trix cereal would be as much as 30
percent lower than this study found, but could not comment further
on the study's particular testing methods. "The safety of both
artificial and natural colors has been affirmed through extensive
review by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the European
Food Safety Authority (EFSA)," the company said in a statement to
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In a similar statement, Mars, the makers of M&M's, wrote, "All the
colors we currently use in our products comply with our own strict
internal quality and safety requirements as well as all applicable
laws, regulations and safety assessments relating to colors added to
"Rest assured, if there is new data or research in this area, the
FDA will review it thoroughly to determine if a change in current
policy is warranted," the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an
industry trade group, added in a statement. "However, the
overwhelming majority of scientific evidence continues to confirm
the safety of these artificial food colors. For those consumers who
wish to purchase products that do not contain artificial colors, if
there is an artificial color in a product, FDA requires that it be
listed on the ingredient declaration of the food label."
SOME KIDS MORE SENSITIVE
Many of the studies on artificial colors and behavioral problems
were done decades ago and used dosages lower than what kids might
actually be eating today, according to Joel Nigg. He studies
attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at Oregon Health and
Science University in Portland.
“The dosages were average at that time but weren’t very high by
today’s standard,” Nigg told Reuters Health. “Many of the studies
have found fairly small effects, but we may be underestimating
compared to what children actually get these days.”
Some kids respond to higher amounts of dyes with inattention,
hyperactivity, irritability, temper tantrums or trouble sleeping,
but researchers don’t understand why or how, Stevens said.
Those behavioral problems don’t manifest in all kids, but tend to be
more common among those who already have behavioral issues, like
kids with ADHD.
In a review of studies connecting food dyes and preservatives to
behavioral problems, Nigg found that about eight percent of kids
with ADHD may have symptoms related to food color additives.
Stevens recommends that parents avoid artificial colors entirely.
“It’s just a matter of reading labels,” she said.
Nigg cautioned against highly restrictive diets focusing on
particular dyes, since kids can react to a wide range of additives.
But, he said, “I think we can say for sure that with the exception
of vitamins and minerals, most artificial colors don’t add anything.
Parents don’t lose much by avoiding these highly processed foods.”
Clinical Pediatrics, online April 24, 2014.
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