So thirty years ago!: CSPI pushes for synthetic food dye ban due to alleged hyperactivity link

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As the FDA prepares for a March hearing to assess whether synthetic food dyes cause hyperactivity in children, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is asking that they be banned altogether. Last year, the European Parliament banned synthetic food dyes — used to improve the appearance of packaged foods — in products geared towards babies and young children. CSPI cited a 2007 study published in The Lancet concluding that these dyes, when used with the preservative sodium benzoate, led to increased rates of hyperactivity in three-year-old and eight-to-nine-year-old children. The FDA, however, already reviewed this study and found no evidence of a hyperactivity link. In addition, that research examined exposures to combinations of dyes and sodium benzoate, making it impossible to link hyperactivity to a particular dye or preservative.

The synthetic dye issue is old news to ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, who remembers when pediatric allergist Dr. Ben Feingold hyped this theory while promoting the idea that eliminating synthetic dyes from children’s diets offered an effective means to treat allergies and hyperactivity. Dr. Whelan recalls that he told parents to “get up every Saturday morning with the kids to make four-to-five days’ worth of candy and cookies without additives so the kids would calm down.”

While the extra hours of parent-child interaction could have had a calming effect on the children, in the many years since Dr. Feingold introduced his ideas his research has never been scientifically validated.

Even so, CSPI President Michael Jacobsen thinks synthetic dyes should be replaced with natural dyes, arguing that the only benefit of the dyes is “to make junk food even more appealing to children than it already is.”

ACSH advisor Dr. Joseph Borzelleca, professor emeritus of pharmacology and toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University, is not impressed. Dr. Borzelleca categorically says that “[synthetic food dyes] used in the U.S. are absolutely safe. Food colors are among the most thoroughly studied of the food ingredients.”

Similarly, ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross dismisses Jacobson’s approach as yet another example of the emotional but not always rational “natural is always better” mode of thought. He notes: “CSPI’s position on this is based on absolutely no new science, and the 2007 study they rely on has never been replicated, flawed though it was. The false dichotomy between ‘safe natural’ food colors and ‘toxic synthetic’ additives is not a basis for such an extensive ban.”