The non-profit consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) submitted a petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Thursday urging it to require food makers to disclose artificial coloring additives on the front labels of their products.
According to the petition, major food companies frequently rely on artificial colorings to imply the inclusion of healthy ingredients that are not actually in the product. This can lead to confusion for consumers who might not read the small ingredients lists on “nutrition facts” labels, the CSPI argued, calling the practice “deceptive.”
Their solution: Clearly print any artificial colors on the front label.
“I don’t know if the FDA will approve it, but it’s a small measure that would help protect consumers and maybe cause some food companies not to use dyes,” CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, Ph. D., told Food Safety News.
In a news release, the CSPI highlighted two examples of products that do not contain the foods after which they are named: Tropicana Twister Cherry Berry Blast and Betty Crocker SuperMoist Carrot Cake Mix.
The Tropicana drink contains filtered water, high fructose corn syrup and apple and grape juice from concentrate, but instead of cherry and berry juice, its berry-like red color comes from Red 40, an artificial dye. Instead of carrots, Betty Crocker’s carrot cake mix contains “carrot flavored pieces” made from a number of ingredients, including corn syrup, enriched flour and Red 40, Yellow 6 and an undisclosed third dye.
According to Jacobson, that’s just the tip of the iceberg:
“Color additives permeate the American food supply,” he wrote in the petition. “Products as disparate as sausage, bread, gelatin desserts, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, candy, snack foods, baked goods, frozen desserts, and even pickles are colored with added natural or synthetic colorings to enhance their visual attractiveness and imply greater quality.”
Jacobson argued that consumers may be misled by labels featuring healthy-looking foods, such as berries on soft drinks, and assume the product will provide the health benefits associated with those foods. Even the color of the product itself may suggest to some consumers a greater level of nutrition.
Earlier this year, health concerns over food dyes came to the attention of the FDA when its Food Advisory Committee reviewed a possible connection between dyes and child hyperactivity. The committee did not establish a link, but concluded that more research was necessary.
The FDA recognizes one food dye, Red 3, as a carcinogen. And while various studies commissioned by dye manufacturers and academic institutions have shown some dyes to be potentially carcinogenic to rats and mice, the FDA does not currently consider any other dyes harmful to humans.
Food makers are already required to disclose some artificial flavorings on their front labels if the product’s label or advertising makes any reference to its flavor. Jacobson said artificial colorings should be held to the same standard.
In January 2010, the CSPI commissioned Opinion Research Corporation to survey 1,000 adults to find that 74 percent favored a rule that would require disclosure of artificial colorings on the front label.
Jacobson told Food Safety News he doesn’t expect a fast response from the FDA, but he would not be opposed to a pleasant surprise.
“The FDA is currently working on revising food labels and this is obviously not something they’ve been considering, but they could conceivably move it into their cycle of revision if they wanted to,” he said.