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Don't Eat the Red Ones

Photo by Walt Stoneburner

Generally speaking, I do my best not to ingest synthetic chemicals. While that's probably not entirely possible in today's world, I definitely don't want a petrochemical listed as an ingredient in my family's food. Artificial colors, once derived from coal tar (yum), are now derived from petrochemicals (double yum).   If your family eats candy, fruit drinks, colorful breakfast cereals, or any of a host of packaged foods, you're eating them.

Artificial colors have a long history of controversy, and several have been banned or discontinued voluntarily by industry.   Remember in Peggy Sue Got Married, when Peggy Sue (having traveled from the enlightened future back to her teenage-hood) tells her sister while eating small candies: "Don't eat the red ones"?  That's because by the time Peggy Sue Got Married debuted in theaters in 1986, everybody knew that red food dye was linked to cancer.  Even the FDA admitted that Red 3 is a carcinogen.

Guess what?  The dye Red 3 was never banned, and about 200,000 pounds annually still enters the food supply, through products such as Betty Crocker’s Fruit Roll-Ups and ConAgra’s Kid Cuisine frozen meals.

Another surprising fact: companies like Kraft, Coca Cola, and Wal-Mart make two sets of food products.  One set without artificial colors destined for the U.K. and other countries (in response to the Southampton Study), and another set with artificial colors destined for the American market.  Scientists have linked artificial colors still used today to cancer, allergic reactions, and hyperactivity, among other things. The FDA recently considered problems associated with artificial colors, but instead of banning them or requiring special labeling of products with artificial colors, the FDA instead decided that what we need is "more research."

I, myself, don't need any more research to decide that I don't want my family eating artificial colors.  Given the potential risks and nonexistent benefits (except to the food industry: artificial colors are cheaper), I don't understand why they should exist at all.  If you agree, you can sign this petition asking Kraft to remove food dyes from their U.S. products too.

Ten simple steps I am taking to avoid artificial colors (as well as other weird food additives):
  1. Teach my kids to love the colors of real foods: mangoes, blueberries, broccoli, apples.  This is the rainbow of colors kids are supposed to be eating. (This used to be No. 10.  But my husband read the post and said it should be No. 1.)
  2. Make more foods from scratch at home.
  3. Limit consumption of processed and packaged foods.
  4. Drink mostly water (and sometimes milk or 100% juice).
  5. Read ingredient labels carefully.  Artificial colors are easy to spot, since they usually use numbers (or a letter, in the case of Orange B).  Here are some examples:  FD&C Blue No. 1, Red 3, Orange B, Citrus Red No. 2.  Sometimes the ingredient "artificial color" is actually a natural color, just to make life a little more confusing.
  6. Buy our processed foods at Trader Joe's (or Whole Foods), since Trader Joe's does not allow artificial colors in any of their own products.  Or buy organic packaged foods.  Organic foods cannot use artificial colors.
  7. Find more acceptable versions of our must-have junk foods.  I noticed that my husband was frequently sharing a little bag of peanut M&Ms with our 3-year-old.  He protested ending the ritual, so I bought a container of chocolate-covered peanuts for them to enjoy together instead.
  8. Buy dye-free medicine, especially for your kids.  Target has their own generic brand that is dye-free for infant ibuprofen and tylenol. 
  9. Use natural food coloring (derived from natural ingredients) for cake frosting, Easter eggs, or homemade play dough.  
  10. Throw away most of the candy my kids receive from others.  Yes, it's true.  So far, they haven't really noticed.

Learn More:
Just in time for Easter: Naturally Dyed Eggs


Do you avoid artificial food coloring?  How?

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