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Advocacy group calls on FDA to ban artificial food dyes

By Mike Hughlett

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Spurred on by a successful revolt against artificial food dyes in the United Kingdom, a prominent U.S. food safety advocacy group Tuesday called on federal regulators to ban several colorings, claiming they’re linked to hyperactivity in children.

Although it may be a long shot — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has long rejected such claims — food safety advocates are hoping that by putting a spotlight on the issue, food producers will voluntarily drop artificial colors.

That’s what has been happening in the U.K., as food industry giants such as Kraft Foods Inc. and Mars Inc. have reacted to increasing consumer worries over artificial colors, particularly after a British study bolstered the hyperactivity theory.

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Late last year, Mars banished artificial colors from its well-known Starburst and Skittles candies sold in the U.K. Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft did the same in early 2007 with its British version of Lunchables.

"This is about listening to consumers," said Kraft spokesman Michael Mitchell.

Thus far, however, U.S. consumers haven’t spoken up enough to cause big manufacturers to drop the dyes.

Kraft’s market research in the United Kingdom has shown a "much higher interest" in food dyes than in the U.S. Here, consumers are more interested in calorie, fat and sodium content, he said. So in the U.S., Kraft, Mars and scores more firms use artificial dyes, which tend to be less expensive and look more vibrant than natural colorings.

Artificial food dyes, which are primarily derived from petroleum and coal tars, are a staple in things from breakfast cereal to snacks to soft drinks.

In a petition to the FDA, the Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the agency to ban the two most commonly used dyes, Red 40 and Yellow 5, as well as six other colors. Such petitions can take years to decide, so the group asked the FDA to require foods containing artificial dyes to sport warning labels as an interim measure.

Worries over food dyes have existed for decades. A tempest over Red Dye No. 3, which in high doses caused cancer in lab animals, caused the FDA to ban many uses of it in 1990.

The idea of a link between artificial colors and hyperactivity stems back to the 1970s, although the FDA has disputed it.

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"Well-controlled studies since then have produced no evidence that food color additives cause hyperactivity or learning disabilities in children," the FDA says on its Web site. In an e-mail Tuesday, the agency said it’s "not aware of any information at this time that would change (that) position."

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that in recent years, more research has pointed to a link between artificial dyes and hyperactivity. It cites a study funded by the British government and published last September in The Lancet, a prestigious U.K. medical journal.

After trials involving about 200 children, researchers at the U.K.’s Southampton University found a statistically significant link between hyperactive behavior and the consumption of certain artificial colors, including Red 40 and Yellow 5.

The European Food Safety Authority, a key European Union agency, concluded this spring that the Southampton study provided "limited evidence" of a link between dyes and hyperactivity.

But the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency, in light of the Southampton study, this spring recommended that by the end of 2009, food manufacturers should stop using several artificial colors. It also called for the U.K. to lobby for a Europe-wide ban.

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