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In the weeks since the FDA passed the buck on artificial food dyes, there’s been a lot of talk about the studies. Studies that elicit dismissive words like “inconclusive” and “inconsistent.” Or my favorite: “urban legends.”

The FDA’s advisory panel, while weighing warning labels for foods containing fake dyes, did acknowledge ill effects in some kids with behavioral problems, and called for more research. But the panel wasn’t convinced of dangers for the general population. (Not enough, anyway. The vote was 8 to 6.) So no labels. “If we put a label that long on every chemical and ingredient that hasn’t been adequately studied,” epidemiologist Tim Jones told the Washington Post, “you wouldn’t see the package anymore.”

Hold up. So the people making the rules (or advising the people who make the rules) won’t OK warning labels, because the dye-behavior research is inconclusive. Yet they’ll allow food ingredients where the research is… inconclusive.

How do I even begin to deconstruct that irony?

I know. Let’s just forget the concept of warning labels. Instead: Don’t allow anything that “hasn’t been adequately studied” to be put in food or called food in the first place.

This radical idea has a name. It’s called the precautionary principle, and it’s the idea that if something could harm the public or the environment — especially in the absence of significant benefit — you don’t do it. If there are doubts, even if there’s no scientific consensus, the burden shifts from proving harm to proving safety.

Here’s how that would apply to food dyes: Instead of requiring scientists, parents and consumer advocates to prove that petrochemical dyes cause health and behavioral issues, the precautionary principle would require dye makers, food manufacturers and regulatory agencies to prove that these colors don’t cause health and behavioral issues.

What real colors look like: artist Tattfoo Tan’s palette of greenmarket fruits and vegetables*

Imagine that.

The thing is, this isn’t some fantasy ethical theory. It’s actually in use, not only in other countries, but also, to a limited degree, in the United States. And has been for at least 20 years. The precautionary principle underlies U.S. acts governing workplace safety and endangered species, for instance (though it’s debatable how seriously it’s applied). It’s the reason some European countries have banned genetically modified crops and/or require labels on foods made with GMOs.

And when the U.K. Food Standards Agency encouraged parents and manufacturers to avoid food dyes, and the European Parliament mandated dye warning labels, the message was clear: Rather than risk children’s health, let’s be responsible and take precautions while we figure it out. And wouldn’t you know it? Several huge U.S. food manufacturers swapped petrochemical dyes for natural dyes in products they sell overseas (in some cases dropping preservatives and artificial sweeteners, too). But here at home they’ve continued peddling the same chemical junk.

So of course the food industry cheered the FDA’s non-decision last month. It’s all about personal responsibility, food makers say. Artificial colors are listed right there on the label, they point out. But that’s lame. Consumers need to be responsible, yes, but food manufacturers also need to own up to the potential dangers and stop obfuscating with goofy justifications.

Like this, from a recent New York Times story:

“Color is such a crucial part of the eating experience that banning dyes would take much of the pleasure out of life,” said Kantha Shelke, a food chemist and spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists. “Would we really want to ban everything when only a small percentage of us are sensitive?”

Banana or “banana”?

Indeed, color often defines flavor in taste tests. When tasteless yellow coloring is added to vanilla pudding, consumers say it tastes like banana or lemon pudding. And when mango or lemon flavoring is added to white pudding, most consumers say that it tastes like vanilla pudding. Color creates a psychological expectation for a certain flavor that is often impossible to dislodge, Dr. Shelke said.

“Color can actually override the other parts of the eating experience,” she said.

Seriously? Banning food dyes would “take much of the pleasure out of life”? And do we want to think food tastes like banana or vanilla? Or do we want it to actually taste like banana or vanilla?

Then there’s this explanation from the benign-sounding but industry-funded International Food Information Council Foundation:

Color additives are used in foods for many reasons: 1) to offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions; 2) to correct natural variations in color; 3) to enhance colors that occur naturally; and 4) to provide color to colorless and “fun” foods. Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green. Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.

The IFIC gets points for honesty. Though I get the impression that nobody over there sees the problem with “color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions.” (Um, ick.) And, really, let’s just drop the ruse and drink water, use butter and eat minty white ice cream instead.

But here’s the thing. Just because the FDA did nothing, just because the food industry is big and rich and apparently shameless, that doesn’t mean the rest of us are powerless. The choices we make, the voices we raise — it all matters:

Know what you’re eating
First and foremost: read ingredients. Artificial colors are listed by color and number (see the image below). For more detail on food dyes and other additives, use smartphone apps like those from Fooducate and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It seems overwhelming, I know, because food dyes are in even natural-looking foods, like pickles and tortilla chips. But you can avoid them. Really, you can. We do. And I know lots of other people who do, too. A bonus: Ditching artificial colors will automatically improve your diet, since they’re a hallmark of low-quality foods.

Tell companies you’re not buying it
Write to food manufacturers and sign petitions, like this one asking Kraft Foods to stop using petrochemical dyes here just as it’s done overseas. If you have certain brands you favor, find the consumer contact information on their websites and tell the companies how you feel.

Report your personal experiences
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the main group that lobbied for the FDA hearings, collects stories from parents whose children have had adverse reactions to food dyes. For some kids, the effects are devastatingly obvious. But even kids who aren’t hard-wired can react. I’d even argue that’s the case for most kids, on some level, whether parents realize it’s happening or not. Think about how many times you’ve been at a birthday party with junky cake and seen the ramp-up, the fidgets, distractedness. It’s not sugar that causes the crazies. It’s food dye and other additives. And even if your kid is unfazed, watch how the jacked-up kids change the group dynamic. Then imagine what happens in school when kids bring Lunchables and colored yogurt and “fruit” gummies, sucking all the teacher’s attention because they can’t behave. That sort of thing? That counts as your personal experience, too.

Try to get your school on board
Easier said than done, I realize. Even in my daughter’s small, progressive school, we’ve gotten pushback while trying to discourage food dyes from shared foods (for parties and birthdays). But it’s worth a shot. Gather some background data on food dyes (a good place to start: past Spoonfed posts). Then take a look at these how-to guides from Especially if you’re in a larger school or district, you’ll find great tips on how to approach your school and be an effective advocate. And if all you do is raise awareness or food IQ even a bit, well, that’s something.

Too often, consumer (especially parent) concerns are dismissed as emotional, driven by fear instead of fact. But the precautionary principle turns that criticism around:

What the precautionary principle says is that fear — in the form of caution — has its place. When there is real reason to be careful, when an activity raises threats of harm, act accordingly! That is common sense, not an absolute.

But the precautionary principle is not just against what we fear; it is laid down on the side of what we love. We proclaim in the precautionary principle that human health and the environment are worth protecting.

Amen to that. Our health is worth it. Our kids are worth it. (And a nod to Earth Day: So is the planet they’ll inherit.) Now let’s get this done.

Thoughts on caution, accountability, making choices, raising voices?

*Click here for more details on Tattfoo Tan’s Nature Matching System project.


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