You may have heard that food coloring chemicals are bad for health, toxic to brain cells, and culprits of sparking hyperactive fits in kids. While there do appear to be health risks associated with certain artificial coloring agents, scientists are still trying to definitively figure out exactly how these petroleum-derived chemicals affect our bodies. But there's another reason to avoid fake colors in food—colors are used in everything from salad dressing and bread to pickles and mayonnaise so industrial food corporations can rip you off and trick you into thinking you're getting something you're really not.
Here's how food companies trick you with food coloring:
• Food dyes are a replacement for actual healthy ingredients because they are cheaper than the real thing. The Center in the Science for Public Interest points out that Tropicana Twister Cherry Berry Blast contains 0 percent berry and cherry juice, despite the name of the drink. The color of the nutritionally-defunct product comes not from healthy fruit, but the artificial dye, Red 40, which has been linked to hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in some kids. CSPI recently filed a regulatory petition urging the Food and Drug Administration to require front-of-label disclosure of food colorings, a labeling move that 75 percent of the population wants, according to a 2010 CSPI survey.
Another example of food color fraud? Betty Crocker Carrot Cake Mix (a product of General Mills) is actually a carrot-free product, with "carrot flavored pieces" cooked up from corn syrup, flour, corn cereal, harmful partially hydrogenated cottonseed or soybean oil (likely from genetically engineered crops), and artificial colors Yellow 6 and Red 40. "Companies substitute color additives for real food ingredients to lower their costs at the expense of consumers’ health and pocketbooks," says CSPI litigation director Stephen Gardner. "We hope that the FDA requires companies to label artificially colored foods honestly."
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• Food dyes make products appear fresher and more appealing. When given the choice, most people would choose fresh food over something sitting on a shelf for a few months. Many companies utilize food coloring as a workaround. Most varieties of Mt. Olive and Vlassic pickles are artificially greener and fresher looking than they really are, thanks to Yellow 5, a food coloring linked to hyperactivity, and one that's been found to be contaminated with carcinogenic material. While the perception of freshness may attract adults, food corporations use food coloring in many kids' food and drink products because the fun colors draw kids in. Ever find yourself trying to talk your kid into choosing bland-looking, whole grain cereal in the grocery aisle instead of the stuff that comes in a rainbow of colors? It's not pretty... you get the idea.
• Food dyes make products appear healthier. Some bread makers utilize food color additives to make white bread look more like whole wheat, and cereal, according to CSPI. Makers of Pepperidge Farm Pumpernickel Bread also uses fake caramel coloring to darken the bread, instead of natural ingredients found in traditional recipes. And who knows what color Kraft's Light Catalina Salad Dressing would be if it wasn't colored with artificial Red 40.
"Consumers shouldn’t have to turn the package over and scrutinize the fine print to know that the color in what are mostly junk foods comes from cheap added colorings," says said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.