Friday, March 14, 2014

Seeing Red No. 3: Coloring to Dye For

Fifteen million pounds of food dyes are sold every year in the U.S. Why? Foods are artificially colored to make unattractive mixtures of basic ingredients and food additives acceptable to consumers. See, food colorings are added to countless processed food products to conceal the absence of fruits, vegetables, or other ingredients and make the food ‘‘appear better or of greater value than it is.’’ Otherwise cherry popsicles might actually look as if they have no cherries in them!

I've talked about the role of food dyes in causing ADHD symptoms in kids, but what about their role in cancer?

Due to cancer concerns Red dye #1 was banned in 1961. Red #2 was banned in 1976, and then Red #4 was banned. But what about Red #3, used today in everything from sausage to maraschino cherries? It was recently found to cause DNA damage in human liver cells in vitro, comparable to the damage caused by a chemotherapy drug whose whole purpose is to break down DNA.

But red #3 was found to influence children's behavior more than 30 years ago and interfere with thyroid function over 40 years ago. Why is it still legal?
This is an article in the New York Times about Red #3 published way back in 1985. Already by then, the FDA had postponed action on banning the dye 26 times, even with the Acting Commissioner of the FDA saying Red #3 was of greatest public health concern, imploring his agency to not knowingly allow continued exposure (at high levels in the case of Red #3) of the public to a provisionally listed color additive that has clearly been shown to induce cancer while questions of mechanism are explored.’’ The credibility of the Department of Health and Human Services would suffer if decisions are not made soon on each of these color additives. That was written 30 years ago.

At the end of the day, industry pressure won out. FDA scientists and FDA commissioners have recommended that the additive be banned, but there has been tremendous pressure to delay the recommendations from being implemented.

In 1990, concerned about cancer risk, the FDA banned the use of Red #3 in anything going on our skin, but it remained legal to continue to put it in anything going in our mouths. Now the FDA said at the time that they planned on stopping that too and ending all remaining uses of Red #3, lamenting that the cherries in 21st-century fruit cocktail could well be light brown.

But over 20 years later it's still in our food supply. After all, the agency estimated that the lifetime risk of thyroid tumors in humans from Red #3 in food was at most 1 in a hundred thousand. Based on today’s population, that would indicate that Red #3 is causing cancer in about 3000 people.