Greysicle: The Great Artificial Food Color Debate

Greysicle: The Great Artificial Food Color Debate

Does brightly-colored food makes us happy? Do petroleum-based dyes cause hyperactivity in children? The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Institute of Food Technologists explain their views on the controversial subject.

John Ryan
  • 7 april 2011

In response to a call to ban artificial coloring in food by advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest and its claim that petroleum-based dyes cause hyperactivity in children, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration agreed to a rare reassessment of federal position. While the FDA advisory panel was inconclusive that any link existed between artificial color in food and hyperactivity, it did admit that synthetic dyes may exacerbate pre-existing behavior problems in children, but not enough of a problem to warrant label warnings.

After all, brightly-colored food makes us happy, according to Kantha Shelke, food chemist for the Institute of Food Technologists:

Color is such a crucial part of the eating experience that banning dyes would take much of the pleasure out of life. […] When tasteless yellow coloring is added to vanilla pudding, consumers say it tastes like banana or lemon pudding. And when mango or lemon flavoring is added to white pudding, most consumers say that it tastes like vanilla pudding. Color creates a psychological expectation for a certain flavor that is often impossible to dislodge.

While organic health food advocates agree that color plays an important part in our experience of food, as dietitian Brierley Wright observes the full rainbow spectrum of red, orange, yellow, green, indigo and violet can be found in a well-rounded diet of fruits and vegetables. Wright also points out not all artificial colors labelled as such are synthetic dyes:

Counterintuitively, the terms “artificial color,” “artificial color added” or “color added” indicate that nature-derived pigments were used, since synthetic dyes must be listed by their names.

With public consensus so muddy, perhaps we should take a cue from William Duke‘s photo-illustration for the New York Times, and market grey, color-free Popsicles, if only to settle the debate once and for all that it’s sugar making children bounce off the wall.

Institute of Food Technologists

Center for Science in the Public Interest

New York Times: “Colorless Food? We Blanch”

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