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Food dyes: an update

July 22, 2009 |  5:34 pm

Donuts
Ever since a study in England reported that a mix of six food colorings and one food preservative made kids hyperactive, the "Southampton Six" -- as these substances are rather sinisterly termed -- are being slowly, voluntarily phased out of use in the UK.

Not every manufacturer is playing the game over there, however -- tsk! According to an article at foodnavigator.com, a purveyor of a kind of seaside candy known as "rock" has just been caught with higher-than-even-legal levels of one of the six, Ponceau 4R, and fined 180 pounds sterling (about $295), plus 212 pounds sterling (about $348) in costs.

(In case you don't know what rock is, it's tubular candy that has a gaudy external color and the name of the seaside town it's bought at running all the way through it. Brighton Rock, by novelist Graham Greene, is named for candy rock, not geological rock.)

But the rock infraction is small-fry stuff. Other, larger food manufacturers -- Mars and Cadbury, for example -- have been criticized for being behind on their pledge to remove the colorants. As of March, sunset yellow (E110) was still showing up in Cadbury's creme eggs, for example. (You know: the dye that makes that delicious yolk center so ... intensely yellow.)

In the European Union, any products containing these six colorants will have to be labeled as of mid-2010.

The colorants are:
E102 Tartrazine
E104 Quinoline Yellow
E110 Sunset Yellow
E122 Carmoisine
E124 Ponceau 4R
E129 Allura Red

You can read about the issue in a 2008 Health section article by Melinda Fulmer. There's no planned phase-out in the U.S. Critics of the voluntary phase-out in Europe argue that food companies will drag their feet if they aren't forced to remove these items from foods. In New York City, trans fat content didn't change at restaurants until the phase-out was made mandatory.

Fulmer's article quotes Pete Maletto, a New Jersey-based food industry consultant and food scientist:

"Some U.S. companies, he says, have experimented with replacing artificial colors in certain products, but ultimately changed their minds when they knew they would have to charge more."It is more expensive. You have to use more [natural pigment]so it costs a little more," Maletto says. "But if you say 'no artificial colors' on the box, you could charge a customer 10 cents more and they would pay it," he adds.

Maletto and other scientists say the majority of food makers won't act unless the FDA moves to ban the colors, or they are required to put a warning label on the package."It will be the same as what's happened with trans fats," Maletto said. "Only then will they do it."


-- Rosie Mestel

Photo credit: Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times

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