What’s All This Food Coloring Good For?

By guest blogger Ayala Laufer-Cahana, MD, physician (pediatrics and medical genetics), artist, serious vegetarian home cook, mother of three school-age active kids, and cofounder of Herbal Water Inc.

A new European law went into effect this summer requiring foods and drinks that contain any of six artificial food colorings linked to hyperactivity in children to post a warning label stating that the food “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

Food makers in the U.S. don’t face such requirements. Despite the many health concerns regarding these chemicals, the use of artificial colors in food continues to rise in the U.S. Many multinational companies make dye-free food for European markets yet continue to load the dye for the U.S. market, which still has a great appetite for rainbow-colored food.  Much like butterflies and bees, we’re drawn to color—an attraction that must have served us well when colorful meant ripe fruits—and the cheapest, easiest, and most fadeproof way to saturate food with vivid colors is a chemical one.  Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 certainly deliver dazzling colors that attract kids, and entertain them, much like a new toy.

An excellent study in the prestigious medical journal Lancet found that children in general, and not just those suffering from attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can become more impulsive, inattentive, and hyperactive from the cocktail of artificial extras found in drinks, sweets, and processed foods.

The British Medical Journal published an editorial by Andrew Kemp, professor of pediatric allergy and clinical immunology, in which he recommends a supervised trial eliminating colors and preservatives from the diet of hyperactive children as part of the standard treatment.

But hyperactivity is not the only concern. Some dyes may cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.  Some dyes have shown carcinogenicity in laboratory animals, and dyes may be contaminated with several cancer-causing chemicals.

What’s all this food coloring good for? The answer is simple: Synthetic colors serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever in food. They are not food—they are petroleum products added for aesthetic reasons only. The only reason they’re there is to help with sales.

I myself am crazy about color and surround myself with it. I also think it’s really important to serve food that appeals to all the senses. And the colors of the food, the dishes, and the table setting make a huge difference to how we experience the meal—even changing how it tastes to us. That’s why we should appreciate fruits, vegetables, spices, and herbs so much. They are a delight to the eyes with all their different colors, textures, and shapes.

But added artificial colors in processed foods are a different issue. They surely add nothing to your health, and may be harmful, and if the food doesn’t seem appealing enough to you without added color, it’s probably not very good.

For now, in order to know if there’s food color in a product, you need to read the ingredients list on the label. However, as consumers show a growing preference for natural foods and for foods free of colorings, companies respond by omitting colors or switching to safe, natural colorings, such as beta-carotene, turmeric, paprika, beet juice, and annatto.

By choosing foods free of food synthetic coloring, we create a market demand that pushes manufacturers to make better food.

Would you like to see the FDA enact warning labels on foods containing food coloring in the U.S.?

Read further about food coloring.

Read more from Dr. Ayala at: herbalwater.typepad.com

Dr. Ayala and her team at Herbal Water Inc. want you to experience great flavor without the fake colorings. Herbal Water Inc. makes six flavors of water by infusing organic herbal extracts in pure artesian water. No artificial sweeteners, preservatives or additives are used. Comment below or email maria@rodale.com for a chance to win one of 12 sample packs of Dr. Ayala’s Herbal Waters and Sparkling Herbal Waters!

No purchase necessary to enter or win.  A purchase will not improve your chances of winning.  Void Where Prohibited.  Sweepstakes begins at 7:30 a.m. ET on October 5, 2010 and ends at 7:30 a.m. ET on October 12, 2010.  Must be Over 18 and a US resident of 50 United States or DC to enter.  Rodale Inc., 33 East Minor Street, Emmaus, PA 18098-0099, is the operator of the Sweepstakes.  For complete rules, or to enter the sweepstakes without commenting, please see the rules located here.

Related Posts:

95 Responses to What’s All This Food Coloring Good For?

  1. Ellen October 7, 2010 at 7:58 am #

    Are all these folks criping about plastic entering the contest? I LOVE this water, and recycle. Hey if they dont want or like it, hand it this way- I follow
    @HerbalWater on Twitter and just saw them tweet this- great folks!
    Thanks for the chance!

  2. Ellen October 7, 2010 at 8:02 am #

    Oh, I also subscribed- gardener, composter etc- great articles, glad I found ya :)

  3. Diane MacEachern, Big Green Purse October 7, 2010 at 9:17 am #

    I second the comments of those who oppose production and marketing of yet another bottled water product. Like Beth, I grew up in an era of easily accessible water fountains and then, reusable Thermos bottles that we took with us when we had a picnic or traveled. If we can’t break the bottled water habit, which is one of the simplest challenges we face, how will we tackle more complext issues? Maria is right: soda bottles are just as much the problem, if not an even bigger one. Fortunately, soda consumption is on the decline – but it’s being replaced by bottled water. My solution? I take my reuseable bottle or mug just about everywhere I go. If I want “herbal” water, I make it myself. But I call it tea.

  4. Danielle, It Starts With Me October 7, 2010 at 10:13 am #

    Have people really forgotten about the 3 Rs?? True recycling is better than trashing the bottles…but it’s supposed to be a last ditch effort. Recycling plastics may give people “warm and fuzzy” feeling of “hey, I’m doing the right thing, I recycle”… BUT we can do better than just recycling (as others have mentioned plastic recycling is a misnomer). Follow the chasing arrows and reduce and reuse FIRST!

    I’m surprised at how people can use “I recycle” as their excuse to buy bottled waters. Question. How do (or did) you feel about the oil spill?? Take this fact. Fill a plastic bottle a quarter of the way up….THAT is how much petroleum it takes to make that one plastic bottle. Saying “I recycle” is much like saying “I drive a hybrid.”. Guess what…”I” am still responsible (for the oil spill) even though I drive a hybrid. If we continue to support products that pollute, trash, and destroy our environment…then we are still responsible EVEN if we RECYCLE. If you were (or are still) frustrated, mad, sad about the oil spill…one of the easiest things to do is to reduce consumption of plastics…our worlds oceans (polluted with oil, oil based products and swirling with plastics) and animals would thank you for it.

  5. Anna@Green Talk October 7, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    In response to @Ellen, it isn’t about just the plastic, it is about bottled water too. And Maria, you can take me out the contest too.

    @Diane, “they call it tea.” You made me chuckle.

  6. Riley October 7, 2010 at 1:17 pm #

    For the record I don’t buy bottled water–I make my own seltzer with homemade equipment, from CO2 I buy bulk (taken from the air, and back into the air–zero net impact), using double filtered tap water. I do reuse my neighbor’s discarded 2l PET bottles–let’s see, I gave some away, and recycled (NOT downcycled) a couple more a few months ago. But I’m looking around for a source of polyethylene bottles that can take the pressure. Oh, and these poly bottles do NOT have additives. Those who think all plastics have additives haven’t taken the time to study the issue.

    However, yes, single use water bottles are a problem that should be seriously addressed. Otoh, obesity is too, and supplying drinks which will have no net effect on total bottle usage seems wise–one Herbal Water drunk = 1 less soda drunk. No brainer. Herbal Water is healthier. That is the issue here.

    Be a good idea to take plastics out of hospitals, too? Get rid of all those sterile, clean, one use tubes that save lives. And syringes. And breathing apparatus. Etc, etc, etc. Who cares if more people will die? There are no easy ways to replace this excellent use of plastic. There are other excellent uses, too.

  7. Kate October 7, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

    I can’t really disagree with you more, Riley.

    1) We’re not talking about the use of plastics in hospitals, are we? We are talking about the introduction of another bottled water in plastic that serves no other purpose than to make the producer some money. Of course I think hospitals are one of the few places that the use of plastic is justified and important. Has anyone argued for us NOT to use plastic in that instance during this discussion? No. However, since you brought it up, there has been quite a bit of discussion the past decade about the use of PVC and other demonstrably dangerous plastics in hospital materials, such as IV bags. Google “IV bags plastic” and you’ll see what I mean. Fortunately, manufacturers have stopped using PVC in their bags because of the danger, but there is ongoing research into the dangers of other plastics used in hospital settings. You could argue that the horrible consequences of plastic production and disposal are worth it when it is for the production of materials for hospitals. But we’re not talking about hospitals in this thread. We’re talking about flavored bottled water.

    2) You imply that Dr. Ayala’s Herbal Water is going to end the obesity epidemic. Wow. That would be amazing! Unfortunately, that is highly unlikely for one glaring reason: Phthalates have been linked to obesity and insulin resistance (see: http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.9882). Turns out PET may leach phthalates (see: http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.0901253). So this ‘soda alternative’ might actually contribute to obesity. Oh the irony!

    Beverages like “herbal water” in plastic bottles are the most glaring example of our frivolity and our sense of entitlement. They are completely unnecessary (no lives saved by Herbal Water yet, Riley), and they do not come without consequence. The production of those plastic bottles has already harmed others, just as its end-of-single-use life will as well. When our shared environment is harmed, you are harmed and I am harmed. Even if you don’t believe drinking beverages from PET bottles is harmful to you, the production of plastic bottles is unarguably harmful to our shared environment, which includes people like you. And for what? For another flavored bottled water?!

    This does not begin to address the bottling of water generally, which as Beth and others have pointed out, is unethical. If you haven’t seen it yet, please watch the film Tapped and also the short film “The Story of Bottled Water.” Both films discuss the dirty production of plastic bottles and the stealing of water that goes into the product itself, along with the additional environmental degradation that comes with our disposal/downcycling of these unnecessary single-use plastics.

    The lengths that people go to to defend their endless desire to consume is quite amazing. Yes, we’ve got to have our flavored water and it better be chilled and available to us whenever and wherever we want it. We DESERVE it, and some of us are ‘girls’ and we ‘need’ it. Even if it is completely worthless and in fact harmful.

    Unfortunately, we are ALL harmed by the decisions of consumers like you to buy this stuff. This is not just about you or the other commenters on this blog who are so excited to win their free samples of throwaway plastic bottles. You can believe that plastic is not harmful (heck, we live in a country where a sizable minority believes all sorts of things that have no relationship to ‘facts,’ like organic farming is elitist, or that artificial coloring is safe because the FDA says it is). But you can’t deny that its production and its disposal are harmful. You may be privileged not to live near the place where the oil is extracted or the factory where the bottles are produced, and you may be privileged not to live near the incinerator where the bottles are burned or the landfill where they are buried or the facility that turns them into carpeting, but others, other human beings, are not so privileged. For no other reason than to not cause harm to others, you should say no to plastic bottles. They aren’t necessary. They don’t save lives. They only take them.

    It is this very idea of not causing harm to others that led me to organic produce years ago. I decided it was just plain wrong to let other people get sprayed with dangerous chemicals so I could have my strawberry or lettuce or whatever, REGARDLESS of whether or not those chemicals harmed me when I ate my fruits and vegetables. I don’t want other people to suffer needlessly for me, or in order for me to save a few dollars on my grocery bill. So I made a decision. I would only buy organically, ethically, produced food, not only for my own health, but for the health of my larger human and animal community.

    It is for this same reason that I am against the use of single-use plastics for any products that aren’t life-saving and vitally important. Flavored bottled water is frivolous. It is not life-saving. And for this reason it should be the easiest thing to say NO to.

  8. Kate October 7, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    I’ll try this comment once again without the links so that it is posted quickly. I apologize in advance for posting the same thing twice:

    I can’t really disagree with you more, Riley.

    1) We’re not talking about the use of plastics in hospitals, are we? We are talking about the introduction of another bottled water in plastic that serves no other purpose than to make the producer some money. Of course I think hospitals are one of the few places that the use of plastic is justified and important. Has anyone argued for us NOT to use plastic in that instance during this discussion? No. However, since you brought it up, there has been quite a bit of discussion the past decade about the use of PVC and other demonstrably dangerous plastics in hospital materials, such as IV bags. Google “IV bags plastic” and you’ll see what I mean. Fortunately, manufacturers have stopped using PVC in their bags because of the danger, but there is ongoing research into the dangers of other plastics used in hospital settings. You could argue that the horrible consequences of plastic production and disposal are worth it when it is for the production of materials for hospitals. But we’re not talking about hospitals in this thread. We’re talking about flavored bottled water.

    2) You imply that Dr. Ayala’s Herbal Water is going to end the obesity epidemic. Wow. That would be amazing! Unfortunately, that is highly unlikely for one glaring reason: Phthalates have been linked to obesity and insulin resistance (google to find the article on NIH). Turns out PET may leach phthalates (again, google to find on NIH). So this ’soda alternative’ might actually contribute to obesity. Oh the irony!

    Beverages like “herbal water” in plastic bottles are the most glaring example of our frivolity and our sense of entitlement. They are completely unnecessary (no lives saved by Herbal Water yet, Riley), and they do not come without consequence. The production of those plastic bottles has already harmed others, just as its end-of-single-use life will as well. When our shared environment is harmed, you are harmed and I am harmed. Even if you don’t believe drinking beverages from PET bottles is harmful to you, the production of plastic bottles is unarguably harmful to our shared environment, which includes people like you. And for what? For another flavored bottled water?!

    This does not begin to address the bottling of water generally, which as Beth and others have pointed out, is unethical. If you haven’t seen it yet, please watch the film Tapped and also the short film “The Story of Bottled Water.” Both films discuss the dirty production of plastic bottles and the stealing of water that goes into the product itself, along with the additional environmental degradation that comes with our disposal/downcycling of these unnecessary single-use plastics.

    The lengths that people go to to defend their endless desire to consume is quite amazing. Yes, we’ve got to have our flavored water and it better be chilled and available to us whenever and wherever we want it. We DESERVE it, and some of us are ‘girls’ and we ‘need’ it. Even if it is completely worthless and in fact harmful.

    Unfortunately, we are ALL harmed by the decisions of consumers like you to buy this stuff. This is not just about you or the other commenters on this blog who are so excited to win their free samples of throwaway plastic bottles. You can believe that plastic is not harmful (heck, we live in a country where a sizable minority believes all sorts of things that have no relationship to ‘facts,’ like organic farming is elitist, or that artificial coloring is safe because the FDA says it is). But you can’t deny that its production and its disposal are harmful. You may be privileged not to live near the place where the oil is extracted or the factory where the bottles are produced, and you may be privileged not to live near the incinerator where the bottles are burned or the landfill where they are buried or the facility that turns them into carpeting, but others, other human beings, are not so privileged. For no other reason than to not cause harm to others, you should say no to plastic bottles. They aren’t necessary. They don’t save lives. They only take them.

    It is this very idea of not causing harm to others that led me to organic produce years ago. I decided it was just plain wrong to let other people get sprayed with dangerous chemicals so I could have my strawberry or lettuce or whatever, REGARDLESS of whether or not those chemicals harmed me when I ate my fruits and vegetables. I don’t want other people to suffer needlessly for me, or in order for me to save a few dollars on my grocery bill. So I made a decision. I would only buy organically, ethically, produced food, not only for my own health, but for the health of my larger human and animal community.

    It is for this same reason that I am against the use of single-use plastics for any products that aren’t life-saving and vitally important. Flavored bottled water is frivolous. It is not life-saving. And for this reason it should be the easiest thing to say NO to.

  9. Riley October 7, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    @kate,

    Sorry, I’m out of this discussion. btw, if you read my comment, I do not buy water in plastic bottles.

    Ciao.

  10. christy October 7, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    Hi,

    Would love to win. Count me in.

    Thanks

  11. Angela Stinnett October 7, 2010 at 10:03 pm #

    I would really love to win, looks very interesting~!

  12. Sarah "Angry Butterfly" Schumm October 8, 2010 at 4:05 am #

    I don’t really buy into any of this stuff. Food coloring isn’t washing up on my beach. Plastic is.

  13. maria (farm country kitchen) October 8, 2010 at 4:36 pm #

    Wow! This post has stirred up quite a debate! Thank you all for your comments. It’s great to hear so many passionate proclamations regarding what the best choices are for our health and the health of our planet. Organics are important to all of us, and I completely understand all your legitimate concerns about plastic…I share them too! I’ve enjoyed your feedback and hope that you all continue to share what’s on your mind just like I do here on my blog. THANKS!

  14. Sharon October 8, 2010 at 5:26 pm #

    I’ve never had real problems with food coloring and my children. I do understand the information and warnings. Everything in moderation should be ok. I do agree, that maybe the US should come up with something that shows a slight concern for the health affects of food coloring. It’s possible that we, the US, have not complained as loud as our European neighbors.

  15. Stacy October 10, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    This is quite an interesting discussion. Thanks for giving people something to think about.

  16. VANISHINGWOLF October 10, 2010 at 11:12 pm #

    Food coloring helps our enjoyment of food. Appearance does matter in stimulating the appetite and making eating and enjoyable part of our lives.

  17. Jasujo October 11, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    This is very interesting. :)

  18. Amy Bryant October 11, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    That sounds like a wonderful product. Please enter me.

  19. nicole tolvstad October 11, 2010 at 10:30 pm #

    Intresting article. We do need to think about what we are really putting in our bodies! Would love to win this Prize! Thank You :)

  20. Darcy B October 12, 2010 at 12:38 am #

    This makes me furious! My children are teens, but I still try hard to push them in the right direction when it comes to food choices. The idea that we put harmful dyes in food and drink just to entice children really bothers me it reminds me of the tobacco companies ethics. Is this what we’ve come to –big business in America sells a Slurpee full of dye then makes a huge profit producing the drug that treats the hyper activity caused by the Slurpee. Aaaagh!!!
    Sorry for the rant please enter me.

  21. Amanda S. October 12, 2010 at 12:45 am #

    Great article! I hadn’t really thought of all the foods and drinks that contain artificial colors. So unnecessary!

  22. Pamela S October 12, 2010 at 1:02 am #

    I have never liked dyes in my children’s food or drinks. I know some people dismiss that they’re harmful, but they do appear to make my children more wound up. At least that’s my anecdotal experience. I’d love to try these drinks. Thanks.

  23. Sand October 12, 2010 at 1:24 am #

    I don’t understand the need for the addition of food coloring foods other than candy/sweets.

  24. Mindy October 12, 2010 at 2:06 am #

    Excellent article! We are working very hard in our home to eliminate processed foods and anything artificial in our food but I hadn’t thought about dyes. Thank you!

  25. valancia October 12, 2010 at 2:08 am #

    well I dont want foof coloring IN ANYTHING!!!!!

  26. Veronica Garrett October 12, 2010 at 2:34 am #

    I am concerned about food coloring and all the artificial ingredients that are in our food. It was a very interesting discussion.

  27. Justine October 12, 2010 at 2:38 am #

    These sound great, I’d love to try them. I personally try not to buy much bottled water but sometimes it’s the best way to take it somewhere..however I always recycle, even if that means bringing home empty bottle in my backpack :D

  28. Tammy Greer October 12, 2010 at 2:41 am #

    My son has ADD so this information is really helpful.
    LuckyTJG@cs.com

  29. Gianna October 12, 2010 at 3:05 am #

    I’d love to try this! I broke out in a terrible rash most likely because of the coloring in a med I was taking a few days ago. I could sure do without dyes!

  30. Sarah L October 12, 2010 at 3:22 am #

    I try to avoid food coloring as much as possible.
    Thanks for the contest.

  31. Donna K October 12, 2010 at 5:05 am #

    Good post.

  32. Charlene Kuser October 12, 2010 at 5:07 am #

    I would love to see the FDA enact warning labels on foods containing food coloring in the U.S.I noticed when my kids ate foods or drinks that had food coloring in it,their behavior changed for the worst.
    Thanks for the great review and we need to get the message out there
    for other mothers.

  33. Jennifer gersch October 12, 2010 at 5:28 am #

    I would love the warnings, the more education to people the better

  34. erma Hurtt October 12, 2010 at 5:59 am #

    I love the posts.

  35. susan smoaks October 12, 2010 at 6:21 am #

    i would love to try this water!

  36. Christine October 12, 2010 at 8:06 am #

    love Ayala’s Herbal water

  37. EMMA L HORTON October 12, 2010 at 9:01 am #

    GOOD INFORMATION AND GREAT WATER

  38. susan October 12, 2010 at 12:10 pm #

    Great article, I would love to try this water. suelee1998 @ gmail.com

  39. Kate October 12, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    I don’t understand how some parents can be concerned about food coloring in their children’s food, but not concerned with the plastic package that food/beverage comes in. There is no ‘safe’ plastic. It’s all toxic. And it all leaves a toxic legacy for our kids and our kids’ kids. On top of this, it is toxic to the kids who have to live near where it is made and where it is disposed of or downcycled right now. We have to start seeing ourselves as part of a larger whole.

  40. Tom Bellamy October 12, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    Great article!

  41. JASON JENNINGS, Sr. October 12, 2010 at 7:52 pm #

    love all the Herbal water

  42. deadheadsbride October 12, 2010 at 8:31 pm #

    thank u for raising awareness about the food coloring. However, there are too many plastic bottles littering the face of Mother Earth already. Aren’t there any more Earth freindly packaging alternatives?

  43. Danielle, It Starts With Me October 12, 2010 at 8:41 pm #

    I can’t stress enough how relevant the topic of plastics is to our health. As Kate said, “There are NO safe plastics.” Even if it were “safe” for our foods and beverages, the process to make the plastic (and the chemicals emitted from that process) is slowly killing communities.

    I would highly recommend that everyone watch “Tapped” and “Bag It” along with some of the other previous recommendations.

    We need to make informed decisions not only for our health, but the health of our global community.

  44. Paulette Hendrix October 12, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    Have not tried these yet, but would love to. I read the article, they seem to have a lot of positives going for them! I have two darling grand-daughters and like to give them healthy food and beverages.
    Thanks for the opportunity to enter your contest.

  45. Gary Emes October 12, 2010 at 8:49 pm #

    Anyone want to guess how many decades it will be til the USA catches up again, with Europe in deciding what is best for us? :-)

Leave a Reply