By Sean Keats, CSCS
(WINDSOR, ON) – Frosting on a birthday cake, breakfast cereals, a bag of candy, your favourite cookies, a cup of yogurt, pop, popsicles, those crunchy crackers, condiments, and even macaroni and cheese. Food dyes have found their way into almost every processed food you will find on grocery store shelves.
For years, food-colouring additives have been accepted as harmless. They’re regulated by government bodies, right? Recent studies, however, have begun to question their safety.
What Are Food Dyes?
Food dyes are chemicals used to change the colour of a food so it looks more appealing to eat. Dyes are added to food that’s naturally bland or colourless. They’re added to foods that tend to change colour over time or aren’t uniform in colour. And of course, they’re also put in foods to make the food look fun and enticing to children. This practice has two advantages to manufacturers. It prolongs the shelf life of products and generates more income for manufacturers.
There are two types of food colourings: natural and synthetic. Natural colouring can be derived from the pigments of minerals, animals, spices, or plants and have been used for hundreds of years. If you see beta-carotene, caramel colour, saffron, paprika, annatto, blueberry juice extract, beet juice, or grape skin extract on an ingredient label, these are natural food colourings and are safe to consume.
A little over 100 years ago, scientists developed new ways of creating food dyes by using coal tar and other chemicals. These synthetic colours are easier to produce and therefore save manufacturers money. They also reduce the risk of possible toxins found in natural substances. Examples of synthetic food dyes include blue numbers 1 and 2, green number 3, yellow numbers 5 and 6, and red numbers 3 and 40. Look on a package of snack food in your cupboard and you’ll likely see one or more of these seven ingredients, as an amazing 15 million pounds of them are added to foods in Canada alone each year.
Are They Safe?
Food dyes may make food look pretty and tasty, but prominent food safety groups have called their possible health risks into question. Still considered safe and allowed in Canada, several of these synthetic dyes are banned in the United Kingdom and other European countries because of their health risks.
Ever wonder why your kids are bouncing off the walls and running around the house screaming? It may be from the “fruit” juice and macaroni they had for lunch. Synthetic food dyes have been associated with increased hyperactivity in children, allergic reactions, and an increased risk for cancer. Three are known carcinogens, four can cause serious allergic reactions, and seven of them were found to cause cancer in lab animals.
The government has acknowledged red number 3 to be a known carcinogen, but has deemed these food dye chemicals safe based on how much is consumed and what they are made of. A piece of candy here or there probably won’t hurt you, but what about coloured cereal for breakfast, coloured beverages all day, coloured macaroni for lunch, coloured snack foods, and coloured condiments with dinner?
What Can You Do?
It’s hard not to feel helpless when it comes to the toxins present in so much of your food. How can you avoid them? First of all, read ingredient labels like a hawk. Don’t purchase foods with the synthetic colourings listed above. Second, if you feel led, join a consumer advocacy group to petition manufacturers and government agencies to adopt stricter food safety policies.
There’s good news. Food can still be colourful and look appealing with natural colourants like the ones previously listed. It may cost a few cents more, but the health of your family is worth it, don’t you think?