New Study Reveals Risks of Synthetic Food Coloring on Children, Prompting Calls for FDA to Consider Federal Ban

The recent ban on synthetic food coloring Red No. 3 in California has ignited a fresh wave of pressure on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take similar action nationwide. California became the first state to prohibit Red No. 3, a move that public health advocates hope will prompt the FDA to reconsider its stance on this controversial additive.

The Pressure on the FDA

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“I think the passage of the bill in California creates undeniable pressure on the FDA,” says Dr. Peter Lurie, president and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. 

Filing a Petition

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Dr. Lurie’s group, along with other consumer advocacy organizations, filed a petition last October urging the FDA to ban Red No. 3. The recent action in California strengthens their cause, making it more likely that the FDA will grant their petition.

Red No. 3’s Controversial History

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In 1990, the FDA banned the use of Red No. 3 in cosmetics and externally applied drugs after a study suggested it could cause cancer in rats.

Red Dye in the Food Supply

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However, the FDA allowed the dye’s use in food, leading to its widespread presence in the U.S. food supply. Over the years, various studies have linked synthetic food dyes, including Red No. 3, to behavioral issues in children, such as hyperactivity.

Consumer Advocacy Groups’ Plea

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Dr. Lurie’s group and others insist that the FDA should use its regulatory authority to address the issue definitively. Fr. Lurie said, “For 33 years now, we have been waiting for the FDA to take common-sense action that would remove [Red No. 3] from the market and thereby better protect American consumers.”

Industry Perspective

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However, Christopher Gindlesperger, of the National Confectioners Association, says “Vibrant colors are important to our industry.” Red No. 3 is used in various foods and beverages, such as sodas, juices, yogurts, snacks, and frozen desserts. 

Difficulties for Food Manufacturers

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Gindlesperger emphasizes that the industry adheres to FDA’s safety standards. However, he raises concerns about the California ban, suggesting it may create confusion and increase food costs.

California’s Concerns

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California’s Environmental Protection Agency found that synthetic dyes consumed in food could negatively impact children’s behavior. The data also revealed that lower-income communities and Black Americans tend to have higher intake of synthetic dyes.

Effects on Children

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Numerous studies indicated a positive association between artificial food coloring and behavioral outcomes in children. A study involving children aged 3 to 9 found that synthetic dyes in their diet resulted in increased hyperactivity.

Scientific Evidence

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Mark Miller, a scientist with California’s EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, points out that there is compelling evidence linking children’s consumption of synthetic food dyes to symptoms like inattention and hyperactivity. He suggests it’s time for the FDA to re-evaluate synthetic dyes in light of this new evidence.

FDA’s Response

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The FDA spokesperson confirmed that the agency is actively reviewing the petition from consumer advocacy groups to halt the use of Red No. 3 in foods. The agency will assess whether there is sufficient data to warrant revoking its use.

Controversial Cancer Risk

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Regarding the potential cancer risk identified in 1990, the FDA argues that this risk is specific to rats and not relevant to humans. However, scientists from the Center for Science in the Public Interest disagree, emphasizing the need for long-term studies to establish a mechanism. They point out that Red No. 3 is already restricted in the European Union and other countries.

Unified Food System

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The FDA spokesperson also highlights, “The U.S. depends on a unified food system,” and “the science-based FDA approach to oversight of the food system is the best way to ensure safety.”

Wider Concerns

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While Red No. 3 has been singled out due to the evidence of cancer, synthetic food dyes, in general, have been linked to behavioral issues in children. Advocacy groups have been urging the FDA to ban eight synthetic food dyes since 2008, including Yellow 5, Red 40, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Yellow 6, and a rarely used orange hue.

Ethical Challenges

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Conducting more trials on the effects of synthetic food dye on humans may be ethically challenging since there’s already a body of evidence suggesting a link. This leaves the current data as potentially the only available information on the subject.

Limited Data

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Miller said, ​​”It might be considered unethical to perform those tests,” and “the data that we have now may be the all the data we’re really going to have in human children.” 

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