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Maybe It Was Something You Ate: Chemicals in Food Coloring

January 4, 2011

Nobody ever said that chemicals that bring the Pow Orange to spray cheese were a health food.  Some studies indicate that chemicals bringing on the fun in snack foods have unhealthy side effects -- particularly for children.

Chemicals in the fun snack food

Below, we've published a list of Approved Food Colorings in the U.S., right now, as of January 4, 2011. 

Interestingly, it's a relatively short list.  You'd expect there to be hundreds of approved food colorings.  There aren't.  So what's the story?

Looks like a party

There are lots of chemicals in food and for many reasons.  One reason is visual consistency.  Natural colorings can certainly be used to make a gelatin red, but natural colorings are less consistent.

Say you use beet extract for red tints in gelatin.  The color of beets isn't the same year to year, crop to crop, even row to row in the field.  So your "red" gelatin may turn out pink one week then brown the next. 

Would you serve brown Jell-O

As a recent Chicago Tribune  article reported: "The content of a natural color like grape skin varies, depending on where they're grown, the season, the kind of chemicals used and harvesting," said Joseph Borzelleca, a professor emeritus of pharmacology and toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine (VCU). "But with approved [synthetic] colors you're getting the same thing every time."

Fun with snack foods

The US Food and Drug Association or FDA says the purpose of food additives is to "offset [food] color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions; correct natural variations in color; enhance colors that occur naturally; provide color to colorless and 'fun' foods."

Fun foods are foods described by the FDA as "especially noted for their cosmetic appeal.  Typically these are processed foods, such as candies, snack foods, margarine, cheese, soft drinks, jams/jellies, gelatins, pudding and pie fillings."

Fun foods!

The history of such fun in the U.S. is long and storied.  Using additives to make food more appealing goes back to ancient times when people would salt meat to preserve it.  Later, herbs like saffron were added to rice to make it, besides more nutritious, a pleasing shade of yellow. 

Many believe that from an evolutionary perspective it was just a matter of time before someone created bright orange spray cheese. 

However, trends that evolve aren't always in the best interest of Evolution.  And that's where we are today with food additives, specifically, food colorings. 

Hay-making or crazy-making?

When good chemicals have bad effects on society, an entity will point it out.  Two hot studies on the darker side of food coloring are:

  1. A Rainbow of Risks is a white paper that details chemical toxicity testing, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI.  
  2. Food Colouring Confirmed Bad for Children is the headline across the page where you can purchase the oft-referenced "Southampton food coloring" report. 

"One area of concern is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. The prevalence of ADHD has greatly increased over the past fifty years, and it has been widely suspected that some artificial food colourings (AFCs) are contributing to that." - the i-sis.org.uk web site

The American Chemistry Council, representing the chemical industry, says it supports the National Children's Study.   This is a government-proposed study that may happen in the future and takes over 20 years to complete.  ACC summarizes the study as follows:

"The Study will follow a representative sample of 100,000 children from across the United States from before birth until age 21 examining the potential impacts of a broad range of environmental influences (physical, chemical, biological and social) in order to identify the root causes of many childhood diseases and conditions including preterm birth, asthma, obesity, heart disease, injury and diabetes." -- ACC web site 

Some consumer advocates believe this is an Industry "stall tactic." The concern is that children's health cannot wait another 25 years for conclusive results. 

It's true that no CEO of a manufacturing company sits at a large desk like Mr. Burns, the villianous Simpsons character who runs the power plant, whacking documents with the Approval stamp to authorize a process or product known to compromise children's health.  Yet a lot of consumers have this image in their minds.

Problem is, a lot of people saw Steven Soderbergh's film, Erin Brockovich. One of the more memorable images from the movie is a young child with no hair, fresh from chemotherapy.  Consumers are aware that manufacturing companies can and do compromise the public's health -- yes -- including innocent children.  To what degree this is intentional is a discussion for another day.

Mr. Burns vs. Erin Brockovich

A lot of people saw "Erin Brockovich".  Young and impressionable people who saw it when it was first released have since grown into adulthood.  These are now the folks with the money, votes and power -- and children. 

Today, it may be naive of Industry to think "stall and delay" is going to be an effective public facing chemical management campaign. 

Glossing over public interest in chemicals in food preparation will result in irrational public backlash.  Backlash results in more onerous, expensive and stringent laws for chemical regulation in manufacturing and packaging than are necessary.

In fact, just this morning, EPA announced mandatory testing of 19 new chemicals.  That's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of public hunger for chemical disclosure and management.

The solution

The solution?  Pooled test results, shared data lists,  regulatory parameters, and each company being able to account -- as best as possible -- for chemical ingredients via action-based product stewardship programs.  And, unfortunately, government regulations.

Governmental efforts to regulate food additives in terms of ingredients and labeling  are more necessary than not.  Europe's laws are worth studying in general and also vis-a-vis food ingredients.  The U.S. can learn a lot about what works and what may not work so well.

In fact, EPA and ECHA, the European Chemicals Agency, recently entered a partnership to share chemical data.  This is a step in the right direction.

A quality consumer-oriented web site about foodstuffs is food.uk.gov for everyday information.  In the U.S., try the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN)

President Obama's position today

Today, January 4, 2011, President Obama signed into law a significant food safety bill that grants the FDA authority to really take the fun out of snack food.  Let's assume this is a good thing.  If it's not a good thing, it's our own fault on the Industry side for not taking initiative, or insisting on initiative, sooner.

List of approved chemicals in food color

From the Actio Corporation databases, here is a list of U.S. approved chemical additives.  List is current as of January 4, 2011.  Feel free to print a PDF version and save a copy for your records -- but remember to check for updated copies at least every quarter. 

FDA approved food colors

Remember to check back here, with an official chemical blog, and perhaps check the FDA site periodically, as regulatory lists receive critical updates on a regular basis. 

Cheers.  Till next time, consider the company your foods are keeping.  Too much fun may make Jack not a dull boy but quite the opposite.




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