March 12, 2011

079 Synthetic Food Dyes [7 September 2010]

Did you know that food manufacturers in Canada do not have to list synthetic food colorings in the ingredient list? They are only required to list the word “colours”. They don’t even have to specify whether the dyes are natural or synthetic. The synthetic dyes are made from petroleum and are brighter, more stable and cheaper than natural colorings like turmeric, blueberry juice and beta carotene, so are preferred by the food industry.

There are lingering questions about safety for most of the 10 synthetic dyes approved for food by Health Canada. Erythrosine (Red 3) was banned in the United States for topical drugs and cosmetics because it caused thyroid cancer in animals, but is still legal for food in both the USA and Canada. Allura red (Red 40) increased tumours in one mouse study but not in another [so do a third test and break the tie!]. Tartrazine (Yellow 5) can cause severe reactions including hives in sensitive people and has been shown to damage DNA. Amaranth (Red 2) was banned in the United States 30 years ago because it caused cancer in rats [so feed it to rats, not people!]. There are also health concerns about the other synthetic colors – Brilliant Blue, Citrus Red No. 2, Fast Green, Indigotine, Ponceau SX and Sunset Yellow.

Several large recent studies in Britain in 2004 and 2007 finally settled the debate over child behaviour and synthetic dyes. In response the British government asked the food industry to stop using the 6 dyes studied; and the European parliament now requires a warning on the label of foods containing one or more. Three of these 6 are still in Canadian food, unlabeled.

Health Canada is considering requiring specific names of the dyes used on labels. That’s a step in the right direction, but why do we need them at all? They add nothing to the nutritional value of the foods and are only used to make poor food look good. Write your MP and the Federal Health minister with your concerns. And meanwhile, read the labels and if the ingredient list includes “colours” assume it’s not safe for human consumption.

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