To dye or not to dye

Brownfield Ag News America had an interesting blurb on Thurs Feb 12: Maryland may ban certain food colorings.
A couple of bills pending in the Maryland state legislature seek to require labeling and eventually ban some synthetic food colorings. The bills have been pushed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest which charges the food dyes have been linked to ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The Maryland bills deal with the dyes: Blue 1; Blue 2; Green 3; Orange B; Red 3; Red 40; Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. One of the bills would prohibit public schools and child care facilities from providing food with the coloring in it. The second bill would require a label warning: The color additives in this food may cause hyperactivity and behavior problems in some children. Use of the dyes would be banned in the state in 2012.

The food industry opposes the bill saying the link to ADHD is based on flawed research while the Food and Drug Administration states there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that the colorings cause hyperactivity.

I’m rather conflicted about this. On the one hand, there really isn’t any science backing the idea that dye causes ADHD, although perhaps there is a genetic predisposition that is exacerbated by the dye. There are studies showing a link between dye and hyperactivity – is that enough of a reason to ban it? Sugars cause tooth decay and diabetes, high-fat and high-sodium foods cause heart disease… if we ban one, shouldn’t we ban, restrict use of, or at least paste a warning label on the others?
On the other hand, do we need food dye? Shouldn’t food just be the color it is? What about other additives, like sodium benzoate? Do we need those more or less than, say, trans-fats?
Risk benefit analysis may tell us the answer, but we need regulators to actually think through it.
In a correspondence in June 2008 Environ Health Perspectives, titled Food Additives and Hyperactivity, Bernard Weiss writes:

… The Forum article [Barrett (2007)] emphasized how food additives might contribute to the clinical diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder rather than on the more significant finding that food additives, particularly synthetic colors at levels prevailing in the diet, induce adverse behavioral responses. This is hardly a novel finding. In 1980, such effects were documented in two different groups of subjects with two different experimental designs (Swanson and Kinsbourne 1980; Weiss et al. 1980). Many later publications have confirmed their results. I briefly reviewed the data in Environmental Health Perspectives (Weiss 2000).

According to Barrett (2007), a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official, Mike Herndon, maintains that the agency sees “… no reason at this time to change our conclusions that the ingredients that were tested in this study that currently are permitted for food use in the United States are safe for the general population.” This is a rather baffling statement. In fact, our study (Weiss et al. 1980) was funded by the FDA, and its results, along with a number of others from that period, definitively demonstrated adverse behavioral effects of synthetic food colors (Weiss 1982). During the intervening years, with a plethora of confirmations, the FDA has remained blindly obstinate. It continues to shield food additives from testing for neurotoxicity and apparently believes that adverse behavioral responses are not an expression of toxicity.

Herndon and the FDA should seriously consider what the late Philip Handler said about balancing risks and benefits:

A sensible guide would surely be to reduce exposure to hazard whenever possible, to accept substantial hazard only for great benefit, minor hazard for modest benefit, and no hazard at all when the benefit seems relatively trivial. (Handler 1979)

The FDA has never clarified the health benefits of artificial food colors.

Balancing risks and benefits can help us to rank various ingredients, additives, processes, methods. It’s not that easy, though. These food dyes have no health benefit but do have economic benefits to the companies selling products like juice drinks, for example. What about natural colorants, like beet juice? Some might argue they are superior to artificial dyes, but some people are allergic to beet juice. There just isn’t a clear answer. I have to wonder if the best answer isn’t to let people decide for themselves.
I really like the idea of stickers with websites or even better barcodes that could be scanned with an iPhone or similar device. Rather than cramming a ton of labels onto the product, consumers could obtain information if they wished, in a format that could actually present valuable information. As Pamela Ronald pointed out in To Label or not to Label, a lot of labels are utterly unhelpful to the average person, serving only to confuse and alarm. The ability to see detailed information about a product (perhaps an ingredient list linking to a FDA or NGO database of studies or up-to-date summaries?) would be more helpful and allow people to decide for themselves.
Bernard Weiss (2008). Food Additives and Hyperactivity Environmental Health Perspectives, 116 (6) DOI: 10.1289/ehp.11182
Lovely photo of Red velvet cake mix by designergeek via flickr.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.


  1. “a lot of labels are utterly unhelpful to the average person” Oh how true, I is a college grad and live with a nuklear engineer. We read the labels on all the ice cream cartons one evening when he was not in a hurry!! Now he understands why I read all labels and shopping is such a chore. Hagen Daz was the only natural stuff but too expensive if you have several family members and low income. Homemade is not an option for most people due to the cost of equipment. If you work two jobs to pay the rent it is impossible to be very attentive to labels time wise.

  2. I can only imagine how hard it would be to buy things if additional labels for every ingredient that “might cause x” or “might be linked to y” were added.

  3. I know this isn’t the best place to post this, but I couldn’t find a “contact me”. I’m doing a research about the terminator technology and I really liked one of your articles about it, and I want to know if its possible to get your personal opinion about this.

    Juan Santos
    University of Puerto Rico

  4. Legally the capitalist seed producers are within their rights to make it impossible to save seeds and reproduce the improved food, etc. crops. I personally think it is wrong to prevent anyone, especially low income citizens in the USA or subsistence farmers in the rest of the world from saving seeds which is the end result of the terminator technology as I understand it. It is neat to explore the possibilities of the genetic manipulation but to control food production is wrong. Just because we call it capitalist entrepreneurship in a democracy makes it no different than totalitarian governments controlling production as in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s, etc. time.

  5. This begs the question – are seedless watermelons wrong? You can’t save the seeds, just like a GURT. I have heard literally no one suggest that seedless watermelons are immoral.

    They’re not controlling food production in the same sense as the Soviet Union – The Soviets controlled what their people grew – potatoes vs lettuce and such. Patents control whether or not you have permission to grow the particular potatoes and lettuce that the companies develop.

  6. Juan, thanks for pointing out that I need a “contact me”. I’ll add a link to my About page.

    Adelaide, I think it is wrong to prevent anyone from saving seeds that aren’t patent protected, and to my knowledge, no one is doing so. If any company was to use a GURT, it wouldn’t change in any way whatsoever what farmers are planting today. I hope you will check out my post“ rel=”nofollow”>Gene Flow, IP, and the Terminator (feel free to follow any of the links) and then we can talk about it 🙂

  7. ‘no one is being prevented from saving seed’ Since one of my interests is law cases – I read a book within the last two years, (please don’t ask which one as I just recycled all my notes on previous books due to moving plans), that said farmers who have corn with DNA from the GMO’s are being prosecuted and put out of business because they can’t afford lawyers to fight the people who bought out Monsanto. It is happening in Mid-Western state courts in the USA. Even if those farmers have no contract with the GMO seed companies they can not save seed or have any genetic material from the GMO products in their crop. It is happening in third world nations with people who do not understand anything about GMO’s and patents. The pollen seems to be wind blown farther than thought. As for the dudes who sell non GMO seeds to survivalists, I think some of them are frauds as we bought 3 cans of such seeds one year just to see if they are “heritage” seeds as claimed. I gave two of the cans to other people who had no more luck than I did with growing the seeds in the packets and no seeds from any of the plants that grew were viable the following year. (granted it is only a test in three small garden plots but proves you must know your producer)

    Everyone and their uncle seems to be taking advantage of the fear of GMO’s and the terminator tech ideas.

    Thank you for the link to the other page!!!!

  8. Adelaide, you bring up quite a few points, I hope I can respond adequately.

    There are quite a few ways that patented genes can get into a farmer’s field: 1) legally, with the appropriate contract 2) by accidental pollen drift 3) purposefully bred into the farmer’s lines illegally without a contract 4) sold illegally by a disreputable seed dealer.

    The most famous case of Monsanto vs the poor little farmer in North America is Percy Schmeiser. The case is listed on many anti-GMO sites as the prime example of how the big companies are preventing farmers from saving seed. The story is far more complex than anti-GMO activists show, because all evidence showed that Percy’s field was an example of #3 – the gene was purposefully selected for (see bioethicist Clark Wolf’s“ rel=”nofollow”>description). Farmers who do this are breaking the law.

    Farmers who have patented genes in their fields through #2, accidental drift, are not breaking the law. There is a very easy way to determine the difference between #2 and #3, because there will be much higher amounts of the gene present in fields that have been purposefully bred for it. Pollen drift will lead to only very low concentrations of transgenes in a non-transgenic field. Much research has been done that shows that most pollen falls close to the field with decreasingly smaller amounts of pollen grains falling farther away. If distances between fields and approximate wind conditions are known, the amount of anticipated accidental contamination can be calculated.

    I have read some reports saying that some agents of Monsanto have acted improperly, doing things like spiking samples to make it look like there was more GM contamination that there really was. This behavior, if it is really happening, is quite obviously wrong. This does not make genetic engineering wrong, it means that those people need to be disciplined by the company, or if the company is encouraging it, the company needs to be better regulated. It’s a people problem, not a technology problem.

    Ironically, #2 and #3 could both be prevented with some sort of terminator technology that would cause either pollen or seed to be sterile if it wasn’t kept in the intended field.

    In India in particular, farmers are getting into trouble through #4, buying seed from disreputable unlicensed dealers – another people problem. I don’t know much about intellectual property law in India, but it seems apparent that both the buyer and seller have broken the law if they knowingly sell seed without the proper contracts. If the farmer was just ignorant, it would be difficult to justify prosecuting them. To my knowledge, farmers in this situation have not been prosecuted – if you have information that shows otherwise, please let me know. I would like to add that most countries have some sort of plant variety protection law, the US is not unique in that respect.

    I have no idea about “dudes who sell non GMO seeds to survivalists”, but I’m sure at least some of them are frauds. Stick to reputable seed companies or heirloom seed trading sites.

    “Everyone and their uncle seems to be taking advantage of the fear of GMO’s and the terminator tech ideas.” If by everyone and their uncle, you mean anti-GM activists, yes. I’ve found that proponents of careful use of technology don’t use fear tactics. Instead we use reason and science, which is probably why we aren’t making much headway. No matter how eloquently people like Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak pose their well reasoned points, they will be drowned out with fear and misunderstanding.

  9. Thanks for leaving a comment recently on my blog, and like you mentioned, there are a lot of things in common between my post on aspartame and this one. For that reason, I’m not going to say a lot here, rather suggest anyone who wants to read more have a look at my response to your comment here:

    By the way, Europe will soon ban these same colorings, so the state of Maryland is not alone. You know, give it some thought here, the primary purpose of these colorings is to make candy more appealing to children. This is what they put in winegums and similar candies. It’s makes all the comparisons you make with trans-fats or other food additives seem a little out of place. Are you really in favor of food companies rights’ to make childrens’ candy more colorful?

    Just like tobacco wasn’t proved to be connected to cancer or addicting until the 1990s, the absence of conclusive evidence of harm is not a very good indication of safety. In fact a number of doctors and heath professionals have spoken out about problems with these colorings, and there are good reasons to believe they are not safe.

    It’s also not in any way about taking people’s rights to eat colorful candy away from them, because the 50 states share open borders, and it will always be possible to import colorful candy from elsewhere. What it’s about is creating a mandate for making alternative products available for the people of Maryland.

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