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PFEIFFER: I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. It's HERE AND NOW.
If you've ever eaten candy from the U.K. or any other EU country, you might have noticed some unusual ingredients. For example, Nestle's chocolate Smarties contain radish, lemon and red cabbage for coloring, but not Yellow number 6 or Red number 40. So the Center for Science in the Public Interest is calling on some U.S. food companies to stop using artificial dyes and has petitioned the FDA to regulate food dyes more strictly. Michael Jacobson is the center's executive director, and he's with us to talk about that. Michael, welcome.
JACOBSON: Thank you very much, Sacha.
PFEIFFER: And Michael, in reading about this, I came across this interesting reference to a possible warning that was going to have to go on European candy labels that pushed candy manufacturers to change their ways. Tell us a little bit about that.
JACOBSON: There's been evidence for almost 40 years that food dyes trigger hyperactivity or inattention in children. About six years ago the British government sponsored studies that found exactly that. So they urged food companies in Britain to replace synthetic dyes with natural colorings or no added colorings, and many British companies switched over.
And then the European Union passed a law requiring that any food that contained the dyes used in those two British studies would have to put a warning notice on, warning consumers that the dyes might trigger hyperactivity. And so with the threat of a warning label, it's really hard to find these synthetic dyes anywhere in Europe because companies don't want to put a warning notice on.
PFEIFFER: It was enough to get them to voluntarily switch to more naturally derived dyes.
JACOBSON: That's right. And so we've gone to companies in the United States, saying hey, McDonald's, hey Mars, you're not using dyes in Europe, but you are using them in exactly the same products in the United States. And a good example is in Britain, McDonald's has a strawberry sundae, and the only red color comes from the strawberries. Here in the United States, the red color is jacked up with some red dye number 40.
McDonald's doesn't have to use the dye. But companies like dyes. They're cheaper. They're brighter. They're more stable. And also, because sometimes the naturally colored products aren't as bright as the synthetically colored products, they're not as attractive to consumers. But you know, it's the kind of thing that consumers simply would get used to very quickly.
PFEIFFER: Michael, I have here in the studio two different examples of the same candy made by the same company with different ingredients, depending what country it's sold in. And that's M&M's. I have the American bag here in a little cup of M&M's. And this one has Yellow 6, Blue 1 Lake, Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 1, Red 40 Lake, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
The European version has these little codes that say, like, E100, E133, E160. They may sound like chemicals, but in fact they trace back to things like carotene, you know, the coloring agent - the natural coloring agent in sweet potatoes or carrots. So it's quite interesting when we see these differences. You would like to see all the labels say the same thing?
JACOBSON: That's right. We'd like to see the American products much more like the European products, without these synthetic dyes. And it's crazy that American companies are marketing safer products in Europe than they're doing for their customers back home.
PFEIFFER: So let's say you don't eat Lucky Charms, you don't eat Skittles and you think you're avoiding all these artificial dyes. Are there dyes, I assume, in products that we may not realize that we should be on the lookout for?
JACOBSON: Yeah. It's surprising how widely used dyes are. So there will be yellow dyes in some brands of pickles.
JACOBSON: Salad dressings have dyes. Mayonnaise is sometimes artificially colored.
PFEIFFER: Even mayonnaise, which is white, has artificial color?
JACOBSON: Well, remember, it's made with egg yolks. So there'll be a little tint of yellow in there.
PFEIFFER: So they're bleaching out the yellow.
JACOBSON: Well, they're simulating that there's more egg than is really the case.
JACOBSON: There are some cake mixes that have carrot bits, but they're not real carrot bits. Its hydrogenated oil, sugar, artificial coloring and flavoring. The food industry has all these tricks up their sleeves, and one solution is for people to read labels very carefully.
PFEIFFER: Although sometimes even the labels don't make it quite clear what's artificial and what's not. So it's challenging.
JACOBSON: Yeah. You have to be a label decoder. So if it said carotene on the label, somebody has to know that that's a natural substance and know that yellow dye number five is a synthetic dye. But dyes should simply be removed from all foods to protect children and protect children whose parents have no idea that dyes really can trigger hyperactivity. You know, it's the responsible public health measure to take, and it's unfortunate that the FDA is dragging its feet.
PFEIFFER: Michael, could you hone in on the health concerns a little more? Because the EU Food Safety Authority has said that studies only show limited evidence of a link between hyperactivity and food dyes, and the FDA has acknowledged that certain behavioral problems may be exacerbated by exposure to certain substances like food dyes. But that hasn't risen to the level of them wanting to ban it. So what's your group's position on the health concern?
JACOBSON: I think the evidence is clear that food dyes trigger hyperactivity in some kids. Food dyes are not the cause of hyperactivity, the underlying cause. But if some - if a child is predisposed to have hyperactive behavior or attention deficit disorder, food dyes can trigger those behaviors. And the Food and Drug Administration, after many years of denying that, in 2011, finally agreed that food dyes and some other substances can trigger hyperactivity.
And then it's a question: Does FDA have the guts to do anything? The Center for Science in the Public Interest believes that if you look at kind of the risk-benefit equation, the balance, there's no benefit from food dyes to the consumer.
PFEIFFER: We should note that these companies say their ingredients are safe, and Mars says that it has absolute confidence in the safety of the ingredients it uses. On the other hand, some companies have gone ahead and removed artificial dyes. I'm thinking of a certain mac and cheese company that recently did that.
JACOBSON: That's right. We're beginning to see a little movement. And Kraft removed synthetic food dyes from several versions of macaroni and cheese. And Yoplait, made by General Mills, has removed food dyes from Trix Yogurts and some Yoplait Go-Gurts, you know, kind of child-oriented products. And that's a great start. And hopefully, we'll see further movement in the industry.
PFEIFFER: That's Michael Jacobson. He's executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Michael, thank you.
JACOBSON: Thank you, Sacha, very much for having me.
PFEIFFER: The FDA, by the way, says there's no causal link between food dye and behavioral problems, and it's currently gathering data on the amount of color additives in food and what levels of exposure are appropriate. We would love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you think U.S. food companies should switch to natural dyes? And how worried are you, if at all, about artificial colorings in what you eat? Let us know at hereandnow.org. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.