Why Hasn’t the FDA Banned Food Coloring Yet?

food coloring

M&Ms, Skittles, and Starburst are just some of the American candies slowly removing artificial food coloring from their ingredients lists, but Red No. 40, Yellow No. 6, and Blue No. 1 are still relatively commonplace in the U.S.

This may seem strange, given recent food trends toward more natural, conscious eating: organic sales are up 10.8 percent, and nine out of ten Americans want GMOs to be labeled so they know what’s in their food. It’s even more surprising when you examine the piles of data that show the dangers of these artificial dyes. Artificial food coloring has been linked to organ damage, cancer, birth defects, and behavioral problems in children.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all, however, is that most large companies have already figured out how to make their products without artificial food coloring.

In 2010, after a study linked six common food dyes to behavioral problems, the European Parliament passed a law requiring warning labels on foods containing these dyes and prohibiting them in products marketed to children. Any company that sold their products in Europe had to replace artificial food coloring with natural colors for the European market (and could just as easily sell the less artificial version here…).

Some individual companies have even responded to the desire for less artificial food, including Mars, Papa John’s Pizza, Campbell’s Soup, General Mills, and Kellogg, by opting to ditch artificial colors of their own accord.

So… why on Earth hasn’t the FDA stepped in to ban food coloring yet?

Facing the same evidence as the European Parliament, the FDA deemed the causal relationship between behavior problems and food colorings inconclusive. Though other studies and research continue to show this causality, the FDA has yet to put its foot down.

According to a recent Slate article, one key reason is the difference between how public health decisions are made in the U.S. and in Europe. In the E.U., the “precautionary principle” is applied, which basically says that even if something might cause damage to human health, it should be removed from public use. The U.S., on the other hand, requires proof of harm before taking action, and the proof presented by scientists has not been deemed sufficient quite yet.

But there’s one more major reason why food coloring persists in the U.S.: pretty colors help companies sell food.

Food marketed to children sells better when it features bright colors, because it more easily catches the eye of children, according to the Handbook of Pediatric Nutrition. Today, over half of foods marketed to children contain artificial dyes. And kids aren’t the only ones being wooed by food coloring.

Commercial butter is often dyed yellow when a cow’s diet does not contain enough carotene to give it its natural golden hue. Certain yogurt companies, such as Yoplait, include food coloring in fruit yogurts to reflect the color of the fruit flavor.

Maybe it’s up to us to modify our expectations of what our food should look like, before we can demand the FDA to take a stand against food coloring once and for all.

Related on EcoSalon
Would You Rather… Eat Artificial Colors or Artificial Flavors?
The Facts About Food Dyes
‘No Artificial Growth Hormones’ Now a Major Selling Point

Colorful candy image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.