More parents, food companies forgoing artificial food dyes in favor of natural sources
FARGO—Julie Larson said she can tell when her kids have eaten artificial food dyes.
"My daughter always complains of stomachaches, and both kids get super hyper," the Fargo mom said.
Since her family rarely eats artificial food dyes, Larson said when her kids do—at birthday parties, for example—it's easy to see how it affects them.
"It's been kind of an inadvertent experiment because their bodies react right away, and you can't seem to pair the symptoms with anything else," she said.
Larson said she can't pin the stomachache and hyper behavior on the massive amount of sugar found in a birthday cake or the excitement from playing with other kids, because they experience those things without artificial dyes and it doesn't have the same effect.
"Food dyes are not food; they are something that dyes your food to be a certain color," Larson said. "I don't want myself or my family to eat anything that's not food, period."
Vanessa Berg, a licensed and registered dietitian with Essentia Health in Fargo, said the use of artificial food dyes can be a controversial topic.
"The food manufacturers would say that there's not solid evidence, but there is research that links artificial colors and flavoring to some behaviors, so I think the take-away is some children react to the artificial colors and flavors and some don't," she said.
Berg said that in Europe warning labels are required on three of the most widely used food dyes, but there have been numerous studies on how children react to food dyes and they're inconclusive.
"Some of them support a definite link," she said. "Others do not."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates color additives used in the United States and considers them safe when used properly.
But local experts say limiting them certainly won't hurt.
Julie Garden-Robinson, a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist, said she has never noticed behavioral effects of artificial dyes in her children, but she knows that some people do.
"Some of the research is showing that there might be this effect," she said. "We're also needing more research in this area to find out if there truly is a cause and effect."
In the meantime, she said artificial dyes serve no nutritional purpose and they're often found in foods people should limit anyway.
"All they do is enhance the appearance of the food so if we eliminated them, we would have to accept that the foods don't look the way we expect them to look, but there would be no effect on our nutrition," she said. "Candy, frostings, soda, all of these colorful beverages, most of these would be clear or white without artificial colorings."
Larson said she avoids artificial food dyes by buying organic and non-GMO foods, researching companies' farming and manufacturing practices, and only buying brands she trusts. She also makes sure to avoid artificial dyes in things like mouthwash and toothpaste.
"If something even touches your skin, your body is exposed to whatever is in those products. I do happen to work in an industry that makes it pretty easy to know about a lot of amazing products," said Larson, who works for Swanson Health Products. "It's 2016. As consumers we have so many options open to us that are clean, healthy and good-tasting. That's a far cry from what was happening even 10 years ago."
To figure out whether your child has a problem with artificial food dyes, Berg suggests trying an elimination diet by removing everything that contains artificial food dyes, including mouthwash and toothpaste, from the child's diet for two weeks. Then slowly introduce it back in, one type of dye at a time, to see if there are changes in how the child acts or feels.
"It's challenging for parents," Berg said. "Parents want to do the right thing and give their child a healthy diet. They also don't want to single their child out so they're not getting what other kids are receiving or make mealtime a struggle."
Several food companies have pledged to phase out artificial dyes in favor of natural options. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese announced a year ago that starting in January it would replace synthetic colors with those derived from sources such as paprika, annatto and turmeric.
Nestlé USA also announced a year ago that it would remove artificial flavors and colors from all of its chocolate candy products.
In June, General Mills announced that it would remove artificial flavors and colors from its cereals. Cereals that contain marshmallows, like Lucky Charms, are the biggest challenge and may take longer to change, the company stated.
In a July news release, Campbell Soup Co. stated it plans to remove artificial colors and flavors from nearly all of its North American products by the end of fiscal 2018.
Larson said it's great that more companies are replacing artificial dyes with natural dyes, but said "It's too bad that it took a massive amount of parents to sign petitions to sort of force them to do it.
"When a company as big as Kraft decides to make that decision — even if it's compelled — that's pretty huge culturally because it means the tides are changing with regard to what people decide belongs in their bodies," she said. "It means the consumer has more choice in the matter than many of us would believe."
The most important thing when it comes to children's diets, Berg said, is to make sure it is well-rounded. Nutrient deficiencies can also cause behavioral problems, she said.
"If your child is having behaviors, there's a lot of things to look at, there's environment, all sorts of things," she said.
Garden-Robinson said parents should encourage their children to eat colorful foods from natural sources.
"We really need to think about moderation in all aspects of our diets, except when it has to do with naturally colored fruits and vegetables," she said. "Most of us are really falling short of fruits and vegetables. Those natural colors in fruits and vegetables are exactly what's linked to the health effects."
NDSU recently launched a Field to Fork website, which includes information on things like growing a garden and cooking healthy recipes, at www.ag.ndsu.edu/fieldtofork.
"Let the healthful foods from all the food groups crowd out the less healthful foods," she said. "At least half of our plate should be colorful fruits and vegetables."