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Experts Link Food Dyes To Behavioral Problems In Kids

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(credit: CBS) Liz Collin
At 15 years old, Liz Collin made her broadcast debut covering...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As busy parents, we don’t always make the healthiest choices for ourselves but when it’s meal time, we try to make the best choices for our kids.

We check food labels for whole grains, less fat and low sugar but something extra, added to everything from cereal to fresh fruit, could be causing behavior problems in children. Concerns about food dyes led manufacturers in other countries to change their recipes, but they’re still sold here.

Kelly King is certain of the difference food dyes make in her 6-year-old daughter Kendall.

“She’s always had a lot of energy,” King said.

Doctors diagnosed Kendall with ADHD last year and put her on powerful drugs.

“We were going to need to medicate her all day, then give her another pill at 4 p.m., then give her a medicine so she could sleep. It just didn’t feel right to me,” King said.

A few months ago, the King’s heard about a possible connection between dyes and hyperactivity. Within weeks of taking dyes out of her diet, Kendall didn’t need the medication.

“We’ve had amazing results.  She’s like a whole new child and she’s herself again,” King said.

King said it’s been much easier to find dye-free food than she thought. With what they used to spend on medication for Kendall, the cost of food has evened out.

Taking dyes out of kids’ diets is a big part of Dr. Arlen Lieberman’s practice.

“It’s definitely a big factor in what I look at when I talk to the parents is what kind of food are you giving your kid?” Lieberman said.

At the Golden Valley clinic he shares with his daughter, they’ve seen again and again the change food dyes make.

“They have risks and they have no benefit really the only benefit that they have is the look,” Dr. Krystle Lieberman said.

Food manufactures in the U.S. can use up to nine dyes in food. The dyes Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 make up 90 percent of the market and cause the most concern.

Take a shopping trip and you’ll see them everywhere. They’re listed on a bright cereal box, even the more covert packaging of a pickle jar. From cough syrup to toothpaste, and waffles to crackers.

Synthetic dyes are sometimes even sprayed on fresh fruits to sharpen their shades.

Dr. David Wallinga at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said he believes the science is there for customers to be concerned. He cites more than two dozen studies that point to problems.  Most were done decades ago while we eat more dyes than ever before, a 5-fold increase in 50 years.

Wallinga said dyes mess with our metabolism. The yellow dyes deplete zinc levels enough in some kids, he said, to cause hyperactivity.

An added concern: The chemicals come from petroleum products that Wallinga said have shown carcinogenic to cause effects.

“There is no necessary reason to put petroleum dyes in food.  Period,” Dr. Wallinga said.

Countries across Europe have already responded to the controversy. For the most part, you won’t find the dyes in food on grocery store shelves. The European Union requires foods using synthetic dyes to carry a warning label.

Rather than scaring customers away, American companies like Kellogg’s, General Mills and Kraft did away with the synthetic dyes overseas.

“Why shouldn’t American consumers be treated with the same respect, and conversely, why should the U.S. be the dumping ground for worrisome food dyes?” Dr. Wallinga asked.

The FDA took up the issue last spring. Its scientists found that dyes could affect children who already have behavioral disorders. But the agency said most children won’t see a reaction. So the FDA voted against putting warning labels on foods, but it believes more research is still needed.

Some grocery chains, like Whole Foods, have made the decision themselves and won’t sell synthetic dyes.

Ted Labuza, a professor of Food and Science at the University of Minnesota, said he believes it comes down to customers making choices. While other countries operate out of precaution, he sees our system as limited.  In this country, food additives can’t be tested on people so scientists have to rely on several different factors for study results.

“There’s no way to be 100 percent safe. You can’t test your way to safety. You can’t inspect your way to safety,” Labuza said.

One potential solution to the food dye question is being developed in a small lab in St. Paul and planted in the ground in southwest Minnesota.

The company Suntava started as a way to breed corn resistant to common pests.  Scientists found something much more powerful in their purple corn, a compound called anthocyanin with more antioxidants than blueberries.

Suntava CEO Bill Petrich said it’s a huge find.

“I believe this is a game-changing technology that can positively affect many lives for years to come, ” Petrich said.  “I think the market is global, it’s not just U.S. it’s global.”

The research led to the realization of the corn’s potential as a natural color.  Natural food colors can be as much as 20 times more expensive to produce.

The Hopkins School District decided it was worth the investment.  It’s taken dramatic steps to get dyes out of its schools.

Barb Mechura, the school’s nutrition director, said it’s changed their approach to cooking.

“Our kitchen looks a little differently because we need additional equipment for scratch cooking,” Mechura said. “We don’t need as much room in the freezer right now because we don’t have all the frozen, manufactured foods.”

Cooks are constantly checking labels for food dyes and if they can’t find a natural substitute, it won’t be served.

An important part of the curriculum for all of their kids includes reading food labels. For the last few years, the district’s lunchrooms have been considered leaders in school nutrition. After making many changes, teachers said they see fewer outbursts in class.

“It makes sense that if we’re going to put a lot of synthetic and artificial stuff into it our cells aren’t going to have the energy they need to create a healthy body, a healthy brain, help us be happy,” Mechura said.

In a statement, the FDA said “Approved food color additives are considered safe. There has not been a cause and effect relationship established between color additives and hyperactivity in children.”

A spokesperson from General Mills said “We comply with all regulations where we do business and monitor global regulatory developments. Differences around the globe in product formulation have long existed, and are due to different laws or consumer preferences.”

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