Artificial Coloring:

Is a Colorful Diet Right for Your Child?

by Mira Dessy

Red ketchup, cheesy yellow crackers, lime green jello: in addition to appealing to the appetites of children, one thing these foods all have in common is color, chemically added color. We are conditioned to perceive colored foods as being more appealing and to associate certain colors with certain flavors. Food colors are generally added to improve the appearance of food, to hide seasonal variations in certain food products, or to mask the loss of color through over processing. [Wikipedia] Color additives are believed to have first appeared in our diets as far back as 1500 BC with the colors coming from natural substances such as paprika, turmeric, and saffron. In the early 1900s petroleum-based colors from bituminous coal were discovered. These chemically created colors were easier and cheaper to manufacture. The colors created were more consistent, less dye was needed, and they blended better with the food, often without detectable flavor. [FDA December 1993, 5, 6]

The FDA certifies and tests synthetic colors and has, in the past, banned certain color additives, such as red dye #2, from the food supply. Each color has a specific composition formula that restricts the level of impurities allowed in the additive; the FDA tests to ensure colors meet the chemical composition standard. [FDA December 1993, 2] Although the FDA frequently tests for chemical color standards it does not test for allergenic or other health issues once a color has been granted General Recognized As Safe (GRAS) Status. Records show that overall colorant use has increased in the last five years. From the first quarter fiscal year 2002 to the first quarter fiscal year 2007 Total Certified Color (meaning color batches that passed FDA testing and were approved for use in food, drugs, and cosmetics) rose from 4,063,934.78 pounds to 4,377,279.07 pounds; an increase of over 3 million pounds of artificial color. [FDA 2002, 4] [FDA 2007, 4] This means that over the last five years more artificial colorants have entered the food chain creating a heavier toxic food burden on children and adults.

Recently the BBC published a news article highlighting findings from the University of Southampton, a leading research–led university in Southampton, England, that shows a link between artificial colorants, temper tantrums, allergic reaction, and poor concentration in children. 300 children were tested under a double-blind study with tartrazine, ponceau, sunset yellow, carmoisine, quinoline yellow, and allura red. The children tested belonged to two different age groups, three year olds and eight-to-nine year olds. The research backs findings from another U.K. study done seven years ago that linked the additives to allergic reactions and ADHD type behaviors. The recommendation from experts in the United Kingdom is for parents to stop giving their children food with these additives. [BBC News, August 2007]

The research from the University of Southampton study supports the findings of Dr. Ben Feingold, a prominent pediatrician and allergist who was Chief of Allergy at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco. In 1968 Dr. Feingold published a paper "Recognition of Food Additives as a Cause of Symptoms of Allergy." Throughout his career he would continue to publish articles and work in clinical practice encouraging families to remove additives from their diet. The Feingold Association was founded in 1976 and continues to support a diet that eliminates artificial ingredients, flavorings, colorants, and preservatives. [Feingold Association] Dr. Feingold claimed that 30-50% of his hyperactive patients showed an improvement in behaviors after colorants were removed from their diet. [CSPI, 1999]

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "Most artificial colorings are synthetic chemicals that do not occur in nature. Because colorings are used almost solely in foods of low nutritional value (candy, soda pop, gelatin desserts, etc.), you should simply avoid all artificially colored foods. In addition to problems mentioned [above], colorings can cause hyperactivity in some sensitive children. The use of coloring usually indicates that fruit or other natural ingredient has not been used." The Center goes on to suggest that many of the currently approved food dyes, such as Red No. 3 which is primarily used in baked goods, candy, and the cherries in fruit cocktail, have shown evidence of causing tumors or cancer. [CSPI, 1999]

Some manufacturers are beginning to make changes in their product lines, choosing to use natural food colors in products such as candy and ice cream. Given the increasing health issues and the concerns by parents over the negative effects of artificial colors in the food supply, a switch to natural foods colors is advisable. Although some natural colors are made from metals such as iron or extracted using toxic solvents the majority of those recommended for use are from vegetable or plant sources and are low on the allergenic scale.

It is possible to make food colorings from readily available plant sources such as beets for a red tint, spinach for a green tint, carotene (from carrots) for orange, or saffron for yellow. If a purchased product is considered more desirable there are several sources of plant based food dyes such as Seelect, an organic tea company located on the web at, Nature's Flavors, which offers organic food coloring, many of which are kosher, vegan and gluten-free, located at, or India Tree, which sells natural food coloring, natural color sugar and other products through commercial outlets.

As a consumer it is important to read the labels on all food products, to learn which products do not contain petrochemical dyes, and make the choice to a chemical-free diet. The wide range of products which have artificial colors in them is startling and disappointing. Although the colors from natural food sources are not as brilliant or as consistent as petrochemical dyes, an effort needs to be made toward continuing to educate the public about the inherent health issues arising from consuming artificial food colors and changing their perceptions of acceptable color variations within the food supply. Additionally, manufacturers need to be further encouraged to remove artificial food colors from their products and to replace them with natural sources.

About the Author
Mira Dessy is the owner of Grains & More and teaches whole grain cooking and nutrition classes. She is currently studying Nutrition Education through Bauman College and is a member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.


Bibliography, "Purpose of food coloring", Wikipedia, October 9 2007

Henkel, John, December 1993, "FDA Consumer", U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, pp. 2, 5-6,, "Artificial food colouring warning", BBC News, August 5 2007, Feingold Association of the United States, Parents Guide to Diet, ADHD and Behavior, Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1999

"Report on the Certification of Color Additives Foreign and Domestic Manufacturers", U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Office of Cosmetics and Colors, January 2002, pp. 4

"Report on the Certification of Color Additives Foreign and Domestic Manufacturers", U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Office of Cosmetics and Colors, January 2007, pp. 4, "Food Safety, Food Additives", Center for Science in the Public Interest

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