There’s a lot of focus in the modern world on bringing our eating habits back to a more natural state.
One where we move away from processed foods and additives. One kind of additive that gets a lot of negative coverage is food colouring.
If you’re a parent, or you’re trying to make your life healthier, it can be difficult to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong in the debate about food colouring. Like many wars of words on the internet, there’s a fair amount of misinformation and fear mongering going on. However, it’s important to be informed about what’s actually happening, what colours to look out for, and how they might affect you and your children.
Much of the panic surrounding artificial food colouring began when a study that was funded by the UK government was published. The study found that a mixture of food colourings, along with the preservative sodium benzoate (211) could be linked to increased hyperactivity in some children. The colours that the study looked at were tartrazine (102), quinoline yellow (104), sunset yellow FCF (110), carmoisine (122), ponceau 4R (124) and allura red AC (129).
The British food regulator, known as the Food Standards Agency, responded to the study by encouraging food manufacturers that sell products in the United Kingdom to find alternatives to these flagged colours. Reports suggest that this is already underway in the country, and within the EU foods that contain these colours are labelled with a warning that they may have an adverse effect on children.
But in Australia it’s a somewhat different story. Food Standards Australian New Zealand (FSANZ) has concluded that exposure to artificial colouring in food and drinks does not pose a public health and safety concern for Aussie kids. As such it’s only supermarket chain ALDI, with it’s home base in Europe, that has totally removed those six colours from it’s own-brand products. They’ve also removed 8 more colours as they try to opt for naturally derived alternatives.
Many parents have been informed that artificial colouring can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive children, and while this is true it isn’t just the artificial colours you need to watch.
In the 1980s there was a lot of concern focused around an artificial colour called tartrazine (102), which was proven to cause a mild allergic-type reaction in some children and adults. Further studies found that sunset yellow FCF (110) can have a similar effect.
However, natural colouring annatto (160b) has also been found to cause allergy reactions in some people, meaning that it’s not so much about the substance but about the allergy sufferer. You’ll typically find annatto in margarine, certain types of cheese, smoked fish and some cakes.
There have been an enormous number of claims about the carcinogenic qualities of artificial food colourings, and it’s no surprise that many parents treat artificial colourings cautiously because of them. However, not all of these claims are correct, and indeed many have not been properly substantiated.
Past animal studies have indicated that sunset yellow FCF (110) resulted in tumours, but when these results were replicated with rats and mice there wasn’t enough consistency for the claim to be proven. Similarly tests have linked the colouring allura red AC (129) with cancer in mice, but there simply isn’t enough consistent or substantial evidence of harm. Many people have claimed in the past that brilliant blue FCF (133) was highly carcinogenic, but studies have found this is largely incorrect.
Two more long-term studies on rats did find that erythrosine (127) does increase the incidence of thyroid tumours in the animals. However, when this data was reviewed alongside other studies by an international scientific experts committee called the JECFA (jointly administered by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation) it was found to be safe. In Australia that particular colour is only found in glacé cherries.
Are They Banned?
There’s a lot of misinformation surround whether some of the food colourings that we find in many foods here in Australia are banned overseas. However, Food Standards Australia New Zealand reassured consumers that this was far from the truth, noting that sometimes manufacturers don’t have permission to use a particular colouring in that country, which does not mean that is it banned. According to them:
“It may mean manufacturers have never sought permission to use the additive, usually because alternatives are approved.”
Sometimes additives are not approved because of circumstances unique to a country (e.g. different dietary exposure).”
Often other countries have stopped the inclusion of a colouring that many years ago was shown to be harmful, regardless of whether more recent studies have proved this isn’t the case. You can be assured that any kind of additive, colouring or otherwise will go through stringent testing prior to being allowed into foods and drinks sold in Australia.
You can read more about this from the FSANZ here.
What To Do?
When you stop to think about it, food colouring really serves no purpose in our food other than to make processed foods look better. Basically, it’s a window dressing for something that we’re just going to end up chewing up and swallowing. Still, in our marketing-heavy world it’s unlikely that companies will stop using them, so what’s a parent to do?
Well at the moment most food colourings are found in processed foods, the kinds of foods that you and your family should probably be trying to eat quite rarely. Still people, us included, would be happy to see a FSANZ review of the food colouring situation in Australia. Until they do, all you can do is monitor your child’s behaviour and reaction when they do consume certain colours, and try to opt for natural additives wherever possible.