Tag Archives: food safety

What’s So Bad About Artificial Food Dye, Anyway?

Tillamook mint chocolate chip ice cream, only it's not green.

Tillamook mint chocolate chip ice cream, only it’s not green.

Earlier this week, Kraft Foods announced that starting in 2016 they will no longer include synthetic colors in their boxed macaroni and cheese.  As expected, the Food Babe took all the credit and declared it a victory for her activism to petition companies to remove “harmful” ingredients. In reality, she’s just a bully with no idea what she’s talking about, but it does seem that Kraft is following a trend set by others. In February Nestle announced they too would be removing artificial colors from their candies, and I’ve noticed this trend in the grocery stores – many companies have transitioned to natural food colorings like annatto and turmeric instead of artificial colorings, and they are boasting it proudly on their labels. Just the other day my husband and I treated the kids to a Tillamook ice cream cone at the beach and they both predictably picked mint chocolate chip. When the lady behind the counter handed me the cone, I thought she’d made a mistake. “Is this chocolate chip or mint chocolate chip?” I asked her. “It’s mint. Tillamook took the green food coloring out of it recently.”

There’s definitely this feeling that because companies are removing artificial colors from their products they are confirming what others have suspected all along: artificial food coloring must be bad for us, see? They’re taking it out! But, is that true? Are people mistaking a marketing or public relations move for an admission that food coloring is harmful?

Before you all jump down my throat, let me state the obvious: no one needs food dye. It serves absolutely no nutritional purpose, and I do fully support taking it out because it contributes nothing to our food, except to make it look more appealing. And it’s not even the healthy food that they’re trying to make look more appetizing to kids – it’s the junk food. Where do you find most of the food dye? Primarily in sugary, packaged snack foods like cookies, candy, ice cream and soft drinks. You can make a really convincing argument to avoid food dyes for the following reasons: it’s unnecessary and it entices kids to eat crappy food. If you want to avoid food dye to send a message to food manufacturers that you think they’re unnecessary, by all means, go right ahead.

crest toothpaste

Blue 1

But it’s an entirely different argument to say you avoid food dye because it’s bad for our kids’ health. Are they actually harmful? That’s really what I wanted to know more about, because food dye is in a lot of other surprising places as well: yogurt, pickles, toothpaste, mouth wash and medications (you think that purple “grape” color is natural?) Am I damaging my kids’ health by buying toothpaste with blue dye? What does the science actually say?

It all started about 30 years ago when Dr. Ben Feingold coined the “Feingold diet” as a treatment for hyperactivity. This diet eliminated a number of things, including some artificial colors. Lots of studies have been done since then, and I read through a number of them.  My conclusion was this: there is good evidence to suggest that for some children who have ADHD, artificial food color can exaggerate hyperactive behavior. But, I’m not a scientist or a doctor, so I reached out to Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann to make sure I wasn’t missing something.  Berchelmann is a pediatrician and Associate Professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis as well as a mom to five children aged 18 months to ten years, one of whom has ADHD. Berchelmann is also the director of the Children’s MD blog associated with St. Louis Children’s Hospital. When I read her post, “Does Red Food Dye Cause ADHD or Hyperactivity?” I knew she’d be a good person to talk to. Plus, I’m from St. Louis – it seemed like a good match.

Berchelmann got interested in food dyes because parents were asking her about it in her practice. “It comes up all the time in my practice,” she said. “People are asking me for medications free of dye, can they get antibiotics without food dye. I started to learn which pharmacies carry it, how to prescribe without it. It became clear to me that this is an important issue for parents despite the fact that the general consensus in the medical community was that it made no difference, but parents wanted me to make huge efforts calling pharmacies to get them drugs without food dyes.” So she did some research and (I was pleased to discover) came to a similar conclusion as I did. She did caveat, though, that the science is still unclear because it’s very difficult to do a good study on the effects of food dye on behavior. “It’s hard to take a group of children and say, ok you’re not going to have any food dye for a month or a year because it’s so ubiquitous in our society. And then you’re going to have to say, ok kids now you’re going to eat a lot of food dye – very few parents are going to do that. And then you have to look for change in behavior. And at what dose? So we don’t have very clear answers.”

sunny d

Yellow #6, Red #40. (Ignore my peeling nail polish.)

Berchelmann also pointed out that there are lots of confounders in a study that looks at dose because kids who are eating large doses of food dye are probably eating a pretty “junky” diet anyway, so it makes it hard to do a good controlled study. Which brings up a good point – many foods that have food dye in them are high in sugar, but one of the studies I looked suggested that there hasn’t been any good scientific link between sugar consumption and hyperactivity.  That seems counterintuitive, right? I mean, how many of us have seen our kids bouncing off the walls after eating a bunch of sugar? When I asked our family pediatrician about that, he turned the question around on me: is it the sugar? Or is it the fact that kids tend to eat a high dose of sugar in environments that already lend themselves to hyperactive behavior (like birthday parties and other celebrations?) “Just because there has never been a study that proves a connection between sugar and behavior, that doesn’t mean a connection doesn’t exist,” Berchelmann said.  “That just means we haven’t done a good study. The science of parenting and pediatrics is limited. By the time you get a well enough controlled study, you’re really not replicating anything in real life. It’s a very hard subject to study.”

The good news is that over time, we amass a good bunch of studies that all kind of point in the same direction. And at this point, it seems that for a certain sub-group of children who have ADHD, it makes sense to eliminate food dye from their diets. In fact, Berchelmann was particularly interested in some newer studies coming out of Scotland that look at the genetics of children who seem to have hyperactivity in response to food dye. “There is some research that shows that there are certain sub groups of children who have a certain genetic profile that have behavior changes due to food dye,” she said.  “But in a broad population, on average there isn’t much impact. It’s this sub group. The researchers in Scotland have started to say there are genetic markers in these children who get behavior changes due to food dye.”

So that’s all very interesting and promising for families trying to manage ADHD. But what about those of us whose children do not have ADHD? Is there anything else to be concerned about? “If your child has never had symptoms of ADHD, I don’t think you need to worry about food dye,” Berchelmann said. “I’m not really convinced that they’re so bad for your health. I don’t believe they’re as toxic as the general public believes.” What about claims that food dye is carcinogenic? Or that it comes from petroleum? “The carcinogenic nature of food dye has been hotly debated for some time now, but the FDA continues to permit their use, and the equivalent in Australia and Europe also approves their use.” The bottom line is that while there have been studies done that look at carcinogenicity, it’s not definitive, and there’s not enough to convince any of the regulatory bodies to limit their use. As for petroleum – it is true that some food dye is derived from petroleum, but it’s not like your kids are eating crude oil. In some cases, it’s derived from a petroleum by-product, and the molecules are isolated and purified. Keep in mind that there are also other useful things we use every day that are also made from petroleum, like plastic food storage containers, vitamins and aspirin.

Berchelmann’s family does avoid food dyes, but not because her son has ADHD – in fact removing food dye from his diet didn’t seem to have an impact. She avoids them because she strives for a healthy all-around diet for her family. “I could very much agree with the fact that food dye contributes to the obesity epidemic because it entices children to eat food they wouldn’t otherwise eat. Can you imagine if there was a food snack that was a beigy-white-brown color, would your kids eat it? No. But kids do eat foods that have natural colors like strawberries.” Not only that, but she told me it’s a problem for her as a mom. “If I have some junky dyed food like fruit snacks or kool aid in my house, I get kids begging for it, misbehaving because they want it, filling up on it before dinner. It’s more of a problem to have that stuff in my house because of the kids’ desire for those foods.”

No need to spend extra money for this.

No need to spend extra money for this.

So there are valid reasons to avoid food dye, but unless your child has ADHD, avoiding it because you think it’s bad for kids’ health seems fully unsupported. “If your kids are not showing ADHD symptoms, there’s no reason to pursue an ADHD therapy,” said Berchelmann. And that’s really all the science has to say about it – it can be beneficial for some kids who have ADHD. In other words, just because Kraft and Nestle removed food dye because of pressure from food activists doesn’t mean you have to freak out because you just discovered your child’s favorite toothpaste has artificial color in it. Carry on, the toothpaste is fine.

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Go ahead. Lick the spoon

It’s that month again: December. The month of Cookies and Chaos. The month where you swear this will be the year you don’t eat too many cookies and that you will rein in the geyser of presents that spills forth from the Christmas tree. Each year I promise myself these things, and each year I fail. We leave a party and I think, “Wait, did I just eat a dozen cookies?” and on Christmas morning I look at the aftermath and sigh. Next year, I think, next year will be different. But it probably won’t be.

cookie story-2So, I’m embracing it. Let’s do this. I just renewed my gym membership. Come at me, cookies, I’m ready.  January is the month for change. December is the month for shoveling food in your face.

Now that we have accepted the situation, let’s talk about something that I’ve always pondered but never investigated: how bad is it, really, to lick the batter spoon? I’m pretty sure I always licked the spoon growing up. And the beaters and … maybe even wiped batter directly out of the bowl with my fingers and licked them clean. I never got sick, and I never really thought anything of it. But now that I have mom goggles I think about things differently (you know, the ones that make everything in the entire world look dangerous when your kid is present? Even sidewalks and ordinary chairs look dangerous because you know at any moment your child might spastically fall face first into something without warning. No cause, just effect.) Every single time we make cookies or cake my kids beg to lick the spoon because I’m pretty sure my mom lets them do it at her house. And I always want to let them, but my husband gives me the hairy eyeball and so I say, “No, you can’t. It has raw egg in it, and you could get salmonella.” But I really want to let them, because as I turn around to put the bowl in the sink, I make sure to lick the spoon without anyone seeing (husband included).

I decided it was time to look into that age old adage and see how risky it really is to eat raw cookie dough. The risk comes from the bacterium Salmonella Enteritidis that can be present in raw eggs. Laying hens who are infected with salmonella don’t display any symptoms, so it’s very difficult to know if the bacteria are present in eggs until people start getting sick (vomiting, diarrhea).  Salmonella can be present both on the inside of the egg (if the hen’s ovaries are infected and she passes the bacteria into the egg) and on the outside of the egg (contamination through contact with infected material either from the henhouse or from handling.) Contamination on the outside of the egg used to be a common problem before the 1970s when strict procedures for inspecting and sanitizing the outsides of eggs made it extremely rare. So the real risk today comes from inside the egg, although only a small number of hens might be infected and even then, infected hens can lay many normal eggs while only occasionally laying contaminated eggs.

The reality is, though, the risk is exceptionally low these days. Back in the 80s, 90s and again in 2010 there were outbreaks of salmonella-related illnesses that were traced back to eating raw eggs. As a result, in 2010 the FDA began requiring that egg producers implement preventative measures to reduce the incidence of Salmonella Enteritidis. They estimate these measures will reduce the number of Salmonella Enteritidis infections from eggs by nearly 60 percent. I

cookie story-1ndeed, the incidence of egg-related illness has been reduced since the 1990s when most of us where being told not to lick the spoon. In fact, scientists estimate that only one in 20,000 eggs might contain the bacteria, giving you a 0.005 percent chance that your egg is contaminated. That means that an average consumer will encounter a contaminated egg once every 84 years. Considering that most of the eggs I eat are cooked (which kills the bacteria), the chances are even lower that the one contaminated egg I will encounter in my lifetime turns out to be the raw egg in my cookie dough batter.

Furthermore, even if you do encounter that one egg, you’re probably not going to get sick from it for a few reasons. First, proper refrigeration (at or below 45 degrees F) prevents the bacteria from growing to dangerous levels.  Most outbreaks have come from restaurant settings where eggs are pooled together allowing one contaminated egg to infect the entire batch and then the batch of eggs is kept at unsafe temperatures so the bacteria can grow. If you’ve kept your eggs in the fridge and kept the number of bacteria low, you might not even encounter the infected part of the raw egg (maybe that part gets left behind in the shell, washed down the drain, or cooked thoroughly in the oven.) If, however, that infected raw portion does end up in your mouth, if you’re got a robust and healthy intestinal tract, your own body will do a pretty good job of preventing you from getting sick.

Now, it would be irresponsible of me to recommend that you eat raw eggs. And, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not encouraging anyone to rush into the kitchen and start cracking raw eggs into your green smoothie (yuck). The CDC states that approximately 42,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the United States each year. Of course that includes all types of salmonella, of which Salmonella Entereditis is only one, albeit the most common one. Those statistics also include illness from sources other than eggs (pork, raw milk, beef, sprouts, or even nuts like in this recall just last summer), but eggs are the most common source of Salmonella Entereditis. Those infected with the bacteria usually experience stomach flu-like symptoms that are resolved in less than a week without treatment. In rare cases the symptoms can be extreme and cause hospitalization or even death. Additionally, if you’re immune-compromised, you’re more likely to get sick from consuming just a small amount of the bacteria. The most sure-fire way to avoid illness from eggs is to always properly refrigerate eggs, cook them thoroughly, and consume them promptly.

While I’m on the subject of proper cooking of eggs, think about this: how many eggs have you eaten where the yolk was a little bit runny? What about true Caesar dressing that calls for raw eggs? What about traditional egg nog, aioli, mayonnaise? (Don’t freak out, commercial varieties use pasteurized eggs. The process kills the bacteria and the USDA considers pasteurized eggs to be safe for use without cooking – it’s also what’s used in commercially available refrigerated cookie dough. You can also buy pasteurized eggs and do the same if you want to have a bunch of teenage girls over and throw a big raw-cookie-dough-eating party.) You’re still taking a risk every time you eat soft cooked eggs. What’s the difference between that and taking a few licks of the batter spoon?

Now, I realize that in a true risk-benefit analysis, there would have to be an actual benefit to eating raw cookie dough, and there isn’t. cookie story-3(Other than the fact that I like it.) If I were properly analyzing this, I would have to say that any small risk outweighs the benefit when there isn’t a benefit. Therefore you shouldn’t eat raw cookie dough. But, like I said, I like it. And I’m not really concerned about the risk because I think it’s a very small risk.

So, in conclusion, and in my opinion – let them eat (raw) cake! Not a lot, of course, but this December when I make cookies with my kids, I’m not going to feel guilty about letting them lick the spoon.

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