US regulators are questioning whether artificial food dyes make children hyperactive. A consumer group has petitioned the government to ban blue, green, orange, red and yellow food colourings.
The synthetic dyes are common in food and drinks ranging from PepsiCo's Gatorade, Cheetos and Doritos to Kellogg's Eggo waffles and Kraft's Jell-O desserts.
Manufacturers say reviews by regulators around the world confirm the dyes are safe. The Centre for Science in the Public Interest argues, however, there is plenty of data showing the dyes trigger hyperactivity in kids who are predisposed to it.
"There is convincing evidence that food dyes impair the behaviour of some children," said Michael Jacobson, head of the consumer group famous for exposing the fat and kilojoules in movie-theatre popcorn and fast food.
Jacobson and others will testify before a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee. The FDA will hear the advisers' views before deciding whether to take any action, which could take months or years.
5% of children affected
FDA reviewers, in documents prepared for the advisory panel, said scientific research so far suggested some children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be affected by food colouring. The disorder affects up to 5% of US children, according to government statistics.
"For certain susceptible children with ADHD and other problem behaviours, the data suggest their condition may be exacerbated" by substances in food including artificial colours, the FDA staff wrote in a preliminary analysis.
For the general population, the FDA "concludes that a causal relationship" between the dyes and hyperactivity "has not been established," the agency staff said.
At the panel meeting next week, the FDA will ask outside experts if they agree with the agency's conclusions or if they think more studies are needed.
Concerns since the 70s
Concerns about food dyes erupted in the 1970s when a paediatrician, Dr Ben Feingold, claimed the colours were linked to hyperactive behaviour and proposed a diet eliminating them.
Questions flared again after a 2007 British study of kids who drank fruit drinks with food colourings and preservatives.
The scientists concluded the colourings worsened hyperactive behaviour and also affected kids not previously diagnosed with ADHD.
Other researchers said the study had limitations. A 2009 review by European authorities concluded all data available at the time did not support a link between food colorings and hyperactivity.
The 2008 petition from CSPI asked the FDA to ban all but one of the dyes, calling them "dangerous and unnecessary." The exception, Citrus Red No. 2, is used only on orange skins. Companies could substitute natural colours, fruit or fruit juices, CSPI said.
The group also asked the FDA to require a warning on products containing dyes until a ban takes effect.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food producers and packagers, said "extensive review" by the FDA and European authorities showed the dyes were safe.
"All of the major safety bodies globally have reviewed the available science and have determined that there is no demonstrable link between artificial colours and hyperactivity among children," the group said in a statement.
(Reuters Health, Lisa Richwine, March 2011)