When the color wheel is a health hazard

Artificial food coloration can make us sick. Why do we still use it? (Hint: the answer could apply to hormones, antibiotics, and other modern American delicacies)

What do fish, fruit and pretzels have in common with chocolate, soft drinks and movie-theater popcorn? Very likely, they are tinted with artificial colors.

It is common to see something like FD&C Blue No. 2 at the tail end of an ingredients list. It is made from petrochemicals derived from sources such as oil or coal, and common in packages of candy and other multihued snacks. Strangely, it can also appear in yogurt and on fresh fruits, and even in the deli department.
Ubiquitous chemicals like this are largely consumed without a second thought. But they can pose serious health problems for some people, including aggression, hyperactivity, asthma, depression and skin reactions. The Food and Drug Administration reported 20 years ago that Yellow No. 5, or tartazine, caused hives in some people.

John Pruneski, a Jeffersonville resident, says his children’s reactions to artificial colors were wreaking havoc on their lives. Two years ago, he and his wife began to notice extreme behaviors in their 2-year-old son. He was having bouts of aggressive agitation, accompanied by night terrors, extreme nightmare-like episodes from which people cannot fully awake.

“We’d all be having a nice day, everything was fine,” Pruneski says. “And then without warning, these behaviors would happen. And we’d be like, what happened?”

Such claims are at the center of a long-running scientific debate over the safety of artificial colors. In the early 1970s, Dr. Benjamin Feingold asserted that artificial colors caused hyperactivity in children. Subsequent studies testing the “Feingold diet” — complete avoidance of colorants and other additives — have both refuted and upheld his results. But because of small sample sizes and other factors, conclusive evidence remains elusive. Studies linking artificial colors to health problems are more prevalent outside the United States, and doctors and scientists have yet to delve into long-term effects.

Studies on both sides rely heavily on parental observations. A 1985 University of Louisville study of students throughout the city used test scores as a baseline for measuring the effects of food additives on learning disabilities, claiming that the usual method of having parents and teachers record observations was too inaccurate. That study questioned any connection between artificial colors and behavior, and dismissed parent and teacher comments.

But Pruneski says observation was the key to discovering his son’s allergy. He says his own bouts of impulsiveness and agitation vanished once he committed to the diet. He has a background in holistic education, and his wife, Joanie, is a family child therapist. They encourage people to educate themselves and try simple omission, though not necessarily in lieu of professional help.

Diets that avoid artificial colors seem to be considered extreme. The Lancet, a premier medical journal, ended its critique of a 2004 study linking colors to hyperactivity by intoning, “We strongly believe that unnecessary diets should not be instituted for hyperactivity.”

But are colors necessary?

The food color manufacturers and the FDA think so. According to the FDA, “Color is an important property of foods that adds to our enjoyment of eating. Nature teaches us early to expect certain colors in certain foods, and our future acceptance of foods is highly dependent on meeting these expectations.”
In other words, ugly food doesn’t sell.

“What we’re trying to do with these colors is really just let you know what you’re about to eat,” says Owen Parker, vice president for research and development at Louisville-based D.D. Williamson. The international company creates colors derived from natural sources, such as fruits and seeds. “They say Americans buy with their eyes.”

That explains why processed foods get heavier doses of color, and some tree-ripened oranges with naturally brownish or greenish peels are sprayed with Citrus Red No.2 to “correct” their color. Other factors — exposure to light, heat, moisture or even a long shelf life — can dim a food’s natural hue. Farmed salmon whose flesh was grey because of fishmeal diets were made pinker with artificial color; that resulted in a pending class action lawsuit against Kroger, Albertson’s and Safeway for not disclosing the use of coloration.

Parker also said colors help people to better taste foods, such as a piece of candy that might otherwise appear clear. “If you see strawberry color, then you’re more likely to taste strawberry,” Parker said.

He hopes natural colors, also known as uncertified, will be an increasingly important part of a health-conscious society. But synthetics, or certified colors, are much more stable, easy to manipulate and concentrated, making them much less expensive.

Either way, even the definition of natural is debatable. Chemical processing with food grade acids and alkalis make natural colors stable and useable. Technology allows for the creation of “nature-identical” colors, synthetics that cannot be chemically distinguished from their natural counterparts.  

For now, it seems that artificial colors can cause allergic reactions, just as foods themselves can. The colors can be a factor in numerous health problems for some people. For others, it can be a handy way to distinguish the cheddar cheese nachos from the ranch-flavored.

John and Joanie Pruneski will discuss the dangers of artificial food coloration at Rainbow Blossom’s New Albany Market, 3003 Charlestown Crossing Way, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 3. The event is free. Call 812-941-0080 for more info.

Contact the writer at [email protected]