We all know that today’s processed foods are increasingly linked to health problems.
Yet it can seem overwhelming to even think about making better choices. So here’s a tip: There’s one troublesome ingredient that is so common in highly processed food—and in food aimed at children in particular—that, if you avoid just this one thing, you’ll automatically improve your food quality. And you’ll be well on your way to making other changes, too.
Because reading ingredients labels is one of life’s great eye-opening experiences.
That one ingredient: artificial food dye.
Of all the food additives and other ingredients we should avoid, food coloring is the clear no-brainer. Because, you see, it’s all about looks. Food manufacturers don’t claim that fake colors help preserve food or improve texture or boost flavor. No. For all the semantic gymnastics required to justify other questionable ingredients, manufacturers’ case for fake food coloring comes down to this: It makes food look good.
Fake food, that is. Like bright orange mac & cheese and rainbow-hued cereal. And “fruit snacks” and “lemonade” and countless other processed foods that use color to simulate the presence of actual fruits and vegetables. Unlike when we were kids (and our parents were kids), artificial colors aren’t reserved for special occasions like birthdays; they’re now in everything from food to toothpaste to medicine, even things that are white or look natural (check your jarred pickles and peperoncini, tortilla chips, and marshmallows). Since 1955, that’s added up to a five-fold increase in dye consumption.
Why is this concerning? (Aside from the fact that fake dyes exist solely to trick and manipulate?) Because artificial food colors, which are derived from petrochemicals, have been linked to long-term health problems. They can have devastating effects on children’s behavior and ability to learn. And government regulators and food manufacturers have failed to prove dye safety.
In short: All risk. No benefit.
One more thing: After several other countries started requiring warning labels on foods containing artificial colors, many U.S. food companies developed natural colorants for products sold overseas, while continuing to sell the artificially colored versions here. So these food companies know there are concerns, and they know how to address them.
Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid artificial food coloring because it has to be labeled. So check food packages (or, for restaurants, online ingredients lists) for either the term “artificial color” or for the following specific dyes: Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Green No. 3, Red No. 3, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6. Sometimes the dye colors and numbers are preceded by “FD&C.” And sometimes you’ll also see the word “lake,” which means that the dye has been combined with salts to make it insoluble.
Two other dyes are approved for food use—Orange B for sausage casings and Citrus Red No. 2 for some oranges—but Orange B apparently hasn’t been used in years, and Citrus Red No. 2 is used only on some early-season Florida oranges (yet won’t be labeled). Best bet there is to avoid buying conventionally grown (vs. organic) Florida oranges in the fall.
Want to take things a step further and ditch the dyes even for homemade birthday cakes and other treats? Check out the growing number of natural food dyes sold online, and in grocery stores and natural-food stores. Or make your own.
Then get ready. Because once you learn this stuff, there’s no going back.
Christina Le Beau blogs about food literacy and food advocacy at Spoonfed: Raising kids to think about the food they eat and on Spoonfed’s companion Facebook page. A freelance journalist, her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kiwi, Preservation, Salon, Entrepreneur, Vegetarian Times, Metropolis, the Smart Set and others.