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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  1. I think it's so ridiculous that they make two sets of food, one to sell in other countries and one to sell here. Why can't they be a little more proactive and make the healthier version for everyone? Argh!
    Thanks for the tips and resources though. I am getting more and more determined to make most of our food from scratch. I will have to get some natural food coloring, though.

  2. I have a friend from Japan and a couple years ago when her parents visited the States, she told me about how they were totally freaked out by all the fake colors of the food here. They refused to touch any of it during their visit, she said.

    I'm with the previous commenter -- it's completely ridiculous that they have two sets of food. Reminds me of the quote at the end of Food, Inc. -- you vote with your dollar when it comes to food. Hopefully, people will become more informed and shop accordingly so things will change.

  3. Thanks for the great list! I am gradually working to give my kids less and less processed stuff and this is great practical advice!

  4. We're trying to go more natural ourselves, and the food dye is a big one. You're realistic approach to it all is helpful.

  5. megwrites, yes, maddening. At first when I read that I thought, well, maybe they're just getting rid of their leftover stock by dumping it on the unsuspecting Americans who don't know any better. But then I read about how much cheaper artificial colors are. They'll keep using them here until consumers or gov't demands otherwise.

    Heather, I love your comment. Some friends from South America came here and refused to eat the chicken (they have a farm in Colombia) because they were so freaked out by how gigantic they are here (esp. the breasts). Welcome to Willy Wonka's Food Factory: the United States.

    oh amanda, my husband agrees, and told me to move it to #1 (which I did).

    Jessica and Messy Mom, good luck with your efforts!

  6. I throw away my kids candy too. If I'm feeling indulgent I'll trade them laffy taffy (bad) for chocolate (not so bad).

  7. omg I had chills reading this. It's just scary!
    Go figure about the Red Dye though, my dog can't eat it or he gets sick. I knew it was no good!
    Thanks for this list! If you can get the link to work, I'll sign that petition!


  8. Thanks, ICStarzz. Yeah, that link has been on the fritz. I've gotten it to work a few times, and not others. If you refresh it 2 or 3 times, you might get it to work. Phooey.

  9. We were in Canada this last month and I noticed that many of their products did not contain all the artificial colors that ours do.

    It is crazy! We try to eat mainly organic but it is not always easy. I need to crack down a little harder on this.

    Thanks for sharing this with us though. It is important to keep our children healthy.

    BTW, I loved that movie Peggy Sue Got Married! ;)

    I am visiting from WFMW. I hope you have a blessed Easter!

    Long Wait For Isabella

  10. And remember Dr. Steve Edison from the Wedding Planner (played by Matthew McConaughey) who only eats the brown m&ms because he figures there's less artificial coloring in them since chocolate is already brown!

    Thanks for this post which is reminding me that I and my kids shouldn't be eating any foods with artificial food coloring . . . it'll take us a while, but we'll get there :-)


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