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    Serving Up Food Dyes, UK Style

    April 20, 2015 •  16 comments.

     •  Blog, News

    Written by Robyn O’Brien

    Right now there is a lot of discussion around the science of food dyes. Do artificial colors contribute to hyperactivity in kids? Are food dyes responsible for ADHD? Is it the government’s job to take these dyes out of our kids’ foods or is it ours?

    The fact of the matter is that you are going to get a different answer depending on who you ask. I learned this the hard way when I went to some of our leading pediatric allergists a few years ago to ask about the link between the introduction of GMOs into our food supply and the sudden epidemic we were seeing in the number of American kids with food allergies. They didn’t like the line of questioning and fired off some pretty aggressive responses. But given my background as a food industry analyst, I quickly learned that financial ties between doctors and agrichemical, food and pharmaceutical corporations can play a pretty important role in what these doctors are willing to say.

    So when people get heated up around the science of food dyes, I find myself asking the same questions: Who has funded the research? Is there a financial incentive involved to protect the status quo? And are doctors that are speaking out on this issue in any way affiliated as spokespersons for either the food or pharmaceutical companies that stand to benefit from the continued use of these food dyes in foods?

    Since there are usually extensive financial ties between doctors and food and pharmaceutical corporations, it is often helpful to turn to the consumer marketplace and food companies themselves for answers because money talks.

    And interestingly, Kraft, Coca Cola and Wal-Mart have already removed these artificial food colors and dyes from the products that they distribute in other countries. They’ve reformulated their product lines in other countries and no longer include these food dyes, and they did it in response to consumer demand and an extraordinary study called the Southampton Study.

    The Southampton Study was unusual in that it not only tested an overall number of six dyes (three of them are used in the US (Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) and the other three are used in the UK) but also the combination of two ingredients: tartrazine (yellow #5) and sodium benzoate. The study’s designers knew that a child very rarely has occasion to ingest just a synthetic color or just a preservative; rather, a child who is gobbling up multicolored candies is probably taking in several colors and at least one preservative.

    What’s amazing is that in the U.K., the federal food safety agency actually funded the Southampton Study that led to even U.S. corporations eliminating synthetic colors and sodium benzoate from their U.K. products.

    And in response, a whole host of companies, including the U.K. branches of Wal-Mart, Kraft, Coca Cola and the Mars candy company (who make M&Ms), have voluntarily removed artificial colors, the preservative sodium benzoate, and even aspartame from their products. Particularly those marketed to kids.

    When I first learned about this in the spring of 2007, I was stunned. Our American companies had removed these harmful ingredients from their products overseas—but not here?

    When I first learned this, I found the information discouraging. But then I realized that we aren’t asking our corporations to reinvent the wheel, we are simply asking for them to place the same products on our grocery store shelves that they are selling overseas.

    Because Kraft, Coca Cola and Wal-mart are living proof that is possible for giant corporations to make and sell kid-friendly, family-friendly, and healthy processed foods so that we can give our kids some special treats—like the U.K. versions of Starburst and Skittles, for example —without necessarily exposing them to a chemical cocktail that might also give them brain tumors, or leukemia, or the symptoms of ADHD, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently highlighted in their report “Rainbow of Risks”.

    And it is inspiring (once you get over the initial shock) to see how far the companies have gone and how quickly they acted to remove these dyes from kids’ foods in other countries.

    Asda, for example, the U.K. branch of Wal-Mart acted just one week “after details were leaked to the UK press of a study by researchers at Southampton University. . . ” They didn’t even wait for the study to be published—that’s how concerned they were about public opinion.

    In an article published by the Food and Drink Federation, a Web site that monitors food issues in Europe, Jess Halliday reported that “Asda [U.K. Wal-Mart] has pledged to remove any artificial colours or flavours from its 9,000 own label products, as well as aspartame, hydrogenated fat, and flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate.”

    Wow. The Southampton study didn’t even mention those last three items. Why was the U.K. Wal-Mart rushing to make such healthy choices, when the U.S. Wal-Mart still offered the same old stuff? Wal-Mart had even been slapped by a lawsuit from the Ajinomoto, the company that now makes aspartame, which claimed that U.K. Wal-Mart’s publicizing of its aspartame-free products was a kind of defamation—all while U.S. Wal-Mart continued to use the sweetener.

    Can you imagine how grateful parents in the UK must be when they read this? “[U.K. Wal-Mart] will also meet the Food Standards Agency’s salt-reduction targets–two years ahead of the 2010 deadline,” the article continued.

    Isn’t that amazing? Over in the U.K., our American companies rushed to meet government standards two whole years before they even go into effect. It begs the question, why?

    According to Asda/U.K. Wal-Mart food trading director Darren Blackhurt, “We know that our customers, particularly those that are mums and dads, are becoming more and more concerned about what’s in the food they buy.” Indeed, the article continues, “consumer awareness of nutrition and food quality in the UK has soared in the last few years. . . ” Accordingly, U.K. Wal-Mart was planning to spend 30 million pounds, or about $50 million, to reformulate its product line, adding that, “in the main, taste will be unaffected.”

    Pretty stunning, right? Clearly learning about this remarkable decision is sure to leave a few American parents a little hyperactive. And if you look at the decision a little more closely, you will discover that Asda/Wal-Mart was far from the only British company to respond to the Southampton Study in such a dramatic way. According to the Food and Drink Federation in the U.K., several companies—whether British-based or British division of American corporations—had started offering their customers color- and additive-free processed foods.

    “We are aware of the recent publication from the University of Southampton on selected artificial colours, and we will continue to follow the guidance of regulators on this issue.”—Coca- Cola Great Britain. And in fact, on May 27, 2008, the story broke that Coca Cola was removing sodium benzoate from its products—but only in the U.K.

    “Kraft Foods UK has no products aimed at children that contain the ingredients highlighted in the FSA [Southampton] study. . . . [W]ith our recent Lunchables reformulation in the UK, we reduced fat and salt, as well as removed artificial colours and flavours. Without compromising quality, taste and food safety, we will continue to see where we can make changes and still meet consumer expectations.”—Kraft Foods UK

    “We know that artificial colours are of concern to consumers, which is why, in 2006, Mars began a programme to remove them from our products. . . in November 2007, Starburst Chews became free from all artificial colours. . . . in December 2007, Skittles were made free from all the artificial colours highlighted in a landmark study by Southampton University. . . We have already removed four colours mentioned in the Southampton study from Peanut and Choco M&M’s, and are in the process of removing the final one so they too will be free from these artificials during 2008.”—Mars UK

    “Nestlé UK does not manufacture children’s products that contain any of the additives investigated by the FSA [Southampton] research. . . . and from September 2007, the UK’s favourite kids’ chocolate brand—Milky Bar—is to be made with all natural ingredients.”—Nestlé UK

    “We are committed to replacing all artificial colours in our sweets. We note the Southampton University findings, but we had begun this process already because we are continually listening to our customers.” —UK Cadbury Chocolate division

    Every time I read over those quotes, I find them absolutely stunning. Why are companies that operate in the U.K.—including our very own U.S. companies—so eager to take out the artificial colors there and so completely reluctant to do so here? Why are they willing to spend the money to reformulate their products there while refusing even to consider such a change-over here?

    Maybe the answer can be found in a BBC report on Asda/U.K. Wal-Mart, “Explaining its decision to halt the use of artificial colours and flavours, Asda said it was acting because ‘mums and dads are becoming more and more concerned about what’s in the food they buy.’” An Asda/U.K. Wal-Mart press release elaborates: “Reformulation was hard work, but it was a labour of love.” Well, why can’t they perform that same labor of love over here? Is it too much to ask for what they have overseas?

    After all, we’re not asking them to reinvent the wheel—they’ve already removed these ingredients from their products elsewhere. So why can’t our children get the same protection? Why can’t they serve up the same products to us?

    Today it is estimated that 50% of Hispanic and African-American children will develop diabetes, that 1 in 90 boys has autism, and that 1 in 4 children has asthma. The Journal of Pediatrics reported that from 2002-2005, there was a 103% increase in diabetes medication for children, a 47% increase in asthma medication, a 41% increase in ADHD medication and a 15% increase in high cholesterol medicine.

    And while the science may be disputed, depending on who is funding the study, as to whether commonly used food dyes such as Yellow 5, Red 40 and 6 others made from petroleum pose a “rainbow of risks” that include hyperactivity in children, cancer (in animal studies), and allergic reactions, because of the problem of hyperactivity, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of these dyes given that the British government and European Union have taken actions that are virtually ending their use of dyes throughout Europe.

    Is it too much to ask for the same value to be placed on the lives of the American kids in their cost-benefit analyses that has been placed on the lives of kids in the UK?

    As a proud American, it seems to me that our duty as moms and dads and concerned citizens is pretty clear. We have to get this information out there so that our government and our corporations listen to us, the way that governments and corporations in Europe, Australia, the U.K., Japan, and other developed countries listen to their citizens.

    Because while our children may only represent 30% of our population, they are 100% of our future.

    Perhaps it’s time that we value them like our country depends on it.

    To take action, please join me and the team at Healthy Child Healthy World by signing a letter to the CEO of Kraft Foods (also a mom!) so that together, we can have the same products on grocery store shelves here in the US! Learn more HERE.

      16 Responses to “Serving Up Food Dyes, UK Style”

      1. Wendy Gordon R.D.

        Get the Dyes and Aspartame out of the foods

        • Margaret Snyder

          My daughter who is 35 experiences debilitating migraines and she lives in the US. She has also been diagnosed with ADHD. We have been doing our own research to see if we can come up with some answers. It is difficult for her to determine what may be causing the migraines but now they are out of control even though she has been on medications that are supposed to prevent or abort the migraine. One thing that she knew for sure is that when she has taken a vitamin pill she is guaranteed to experience a migraine about 1/2 hour later. So we decided to look at the inactive ingredients in vitamin pills and the medications she was taking for migraine. Each of them contained food dyes. She lives in the US and I live in Scotland. When she visited me in the UK last year her migraines significantly subsided and we couldn’t figure out why. We are at our wits end but we are certainly going to do all we can to avoid foods or medication that contain food dyes so see if her health improves. We had not realised until we did the research that the UK uses less food dyes than the UK.

      2. Wendy Gordon R.D.

        Get the dyes and aspartame and anything artificial out of the foods

      3. I happen to be commenting to let you be aware of what a magnificent encounter my wife’s child obtained using your blog. She mastered numerous details, with the inclusion of what it’s like to possess an amazing helping mindset to make others with no trouble learn about specific grueling subject matter. You undoubtedly exceeded people’s expectations. I appreciate you for displaying such precious, trustworthy, informative and even fun guidance on the topic to Julie.

      4. Great article. I am teaching a class tonight on how food affects behavior and giving out your website as a resource… you do such amazing work Robyn!

      5. Karen

        Thank you Robyn for raising awareness about food colorings. Preservatives are also a problem. My son is allergic to all of this stuff! My doctors tell me it is a “sensitivity” but after getting hold of a red “bomb pop” last summer, the reaction was so bad that people were asking me what happened to him!
        My son is now much better with the restrictive diet I put him on. We are on the Feingold Program. It is a program that cuts out all food colorings and preservatives out of your diet. His “ADHD” is much better and his eczema is gone. It all comes back though if we eat the wrong foods. We are learning to be most careful about what goes in our mouths.
        Additionally, I was put on Advair last year as my asthma was “worsening” as I was getting older. Due to my son’s diet (I eat with him) my asthma is minimal and I’m off of all asthma medication 6 months now. Hmmmmm.

      6. Lori

        We took eggo waffles and nutrigrain bars out of my seven year old diet ( only 2 things in our pantry with such dyes) two weeks later his behavior in school went from concerning to normal and his participation more than doubled. These are the only things we removed and added nothing…i didnt tell anyone…he literally turned on a dime and then teacher and school psychiatrist couldn’t explain it.

      7. Markey

        Red dye, as well as the others, come from petroleum and so do the preservatives BHA, BHT & TBHQ as well as artificial flavorings i. e. vanillin and others. There’s a wonderful support group called Feingold Association http://www.feingold.org Be sure to watch the video on the home page.

      8. Yvette

        Funny how we give so much credit to the UK when their list of chemicals including in the use of artificial colors is still bad. I also want to see a photo of the label on that UK packaging shown above instead of just putting it below. How do we know it says that? Just sayin’.


      9. Lisa

        It is because the american society does not care “enough” yet for manufacturers here to change the ingredients. Also, it is more expensive for companies to move to non-GMO foods as well as now non-artificial colors. Yes, they have the capability of changing here in the US market but their is no society push for it. In Europe they are very atoned to what is going on and attach themselves to studies like the Southampton study. I completly agree that the US markets should change, and some will, but without a large push from consumers there is no profit loss these companies are seeing from not changing.

      10. Terri Berger, RN, MSN, CPNP

        What a remarkable article you have written, Robyn. I had no prior knowledge of the Southampton study until I recently had a patient’s mother refuse the Flintstone vitamin samples I offered her for her children. She told me she had recently read about the potential negative neurological and behavioral side effects from the food dyes in the vitamins (actually she told me she had read they caused ADHD, which has not been proven, but she was aware there was a strong probable link between the two). After reading your article and the Southampton research, I feel very confident of the potential for serious harm and have been educating the parents of all my patients about the need to look at labels and to avoid foods, drinks, and vitamins with any food dyes, additives and preservatives as much as they can. And we as Americans must be proactive and react with a collective public outcry to DEMAND the manufacturers of those prepared foods to follow the UK’s example! And as an aside, I thought it was extremely “coincidental” that in my 13 years practicing as a pediatric nurse practitioner, I had never had Flintsone’s vitamins samples to give to parents until about 4-5 months ago, when this information came out in journals. I realize now that was not so coincidental at all!
        Excellent reporting and I am happy to sign the letter to the CEO of Kraft Foods and raise consciousness of this issue in my professional and personal life!

      11. MomofAspie

        As a parent of a child with Asperger’s and ADHD, I highly recommend the elimination diet of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives BEFORE you try medication. We have followed the Feingold diet (www.feingold.org) for nearly 4 years, and seen results too good to be coincidental, simply from eliminating these 3 items. It’s not nearly as difficult to transition our food today as it was 4 years ago, as there are many products in the US that are alternatives to nearly all major kid foods (e.g. Back To Nature mac-n-cheese tastes identical to Kraft, but without the coloring; and Newman’s Own ‘Newman-Os’ taste and look identical to Oreos.) If you’re struggling, I urge you to try changing diet first – it’s a simple, drug free option, and will send the message to Kraft and other big companies when their sales go down.

      12. Annie

        One thing I’ve noticed about dyes–including caramel color–when my daughter eats anything with any dyes or coloring, she gets a bloody rash, even if all she’s done is pee. Has anyone else noticed a correlation between dyes in food and diaper rashes? This type of rash doesn’t seem to respond well to the zinc butt paste; I have had best success with healing these oozing/seeping sores with pure coconut oil, or coconut oil with a few drops of lavender. It just really irks me that we have any need for dyes in our food…even FRENCH FRIES in the freezer section occasionally have caramel color added. What the heck is wrong with this country?!

        I read Robyn’s first book a few years ago, long before my baby was born, and found it to be inspiring and thoroughly researched. The frustrations in trying to promote the information became my own frustrations, and I have tried to follow the information as it has become available, and am grateful for having read Robyn’s book prior to my daughter’s arrival. I have recommended this site and her books to many friends!

      13. Why now

        Why not feed kids healthy foods? Why is it that Black and Hispanics have all the health problems? Because they are usually poor and young unwed mums giving their kids a diet of rubbish of the food trucks and ice cream carts? Yes.

      14. About food dyes, aspartame, etc. in Europe:

        The best country I’ve heard about so far about this has been Sweden (where I live). Compared to Finland, Germany, England, France, etc. we have MUCH less dyed foods, and entirely natural foods are basically the most commonplace ones. But even here we have American brands which have aspartame in them (chewing gum and soda especially), and we import yoghurt from other countries that have dyes in them (even though no Swedish brand of yoghurt has dye as far as I know). The Swedish food laws are even stricter than the normal EU laws, this is basically because nearly all Swedes were farmers for thousands of years and the whole culture here is “natural is best”; you even hear old men complaining about pre-washed vegetables in the grocery store, and anyone who goes abroad complains about how “synthetic” the food is.

        However it’s not just the things in your article that you should be aware of. For example, I hear in America, white flour is bleached with chlorine (which is illegal to do here). But it’s not just the bleach; there’s been a Swedish study (or rather, a review of various research over the decades) that has proved that processed grains and added sugar cause cancer, cavities, and various other problems – basically, as soon as things like process wheat arrived in ex. indigenous cultures, that’s when they suddenly started getting such illnesses, for example before then they never had cavities/caries even though they never brushed their teeth. However one of the major problems is that even so-called “whole wheat” can be processed, meaning they basically split the wheat and then splice it back together if that makes sense. The lady says that if you were to eat real whole-grain stuff, you could also have a little added sugar as things in the wheat/grain protect you from the sugar. I don’t know if the lady has published anything in English but you can find the lecture video here:

        If the link dies, it’s called “I sockrets fotspår” (in sugar’s footprints) and her name is Ann Fernholm.

        Other problems in the US worth searching about if you don’t know: “Tin can linings” (poisonous stuff seeps into the food even well before the expiration date), “fruit wax” and “plastic lettuce” (both are essentially ‘edible’ mixes of plastic and chemicals, and can even be found on organic items as organic apparently only applies to foods grown organically and not to what happens after being picked). This is in addition to, of course, the things everyone knows about like mercury in fish from certain parts of the ocean, and lots of chemicals in cow and chicken meat especially. Also be sure to read about American Apparel (among other things they, er, take softcore photos of sometimes-underaged, sometimes-unwilling girls after they get them drunk or on drugs, and use those as product images).

        I basically think that, US companies feel like they are untouchable when within the US. It’s not simply about consumer demand, it’s that the laws, politicians, doctors, tv people and so on all try to help these big companies because the entire system is corrupt. It’s not simply about the food companies, they’re just part of a larger problem. However when these same companies go abroad, they realize they can’t just do whatever they want all the time. They still get away with a lot, and in fact America is still the trend-setter for many young people and countries abroad today despite all the bad things (that’s how aspartame got allowed!), but I sure hope that’s changing soon.

      15. ProveIt

        So, if in 2007 the UK banned these food dyes, why have I not seen a study that shows improvement in the population for ADHD children?

        The data should be there, right? UK kids before & now vs. US kids before & now.

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