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Food Coloring

I'll admit it. I love Carousel cookies. (You know, the pink and white ones with sprinkles of color, shaped like animals.) They take me back to my grade school days and remind me of my friend Norene. Friday nights, pizza, movies, and munchies (Carousel cookies). So on the Friday of "O-MY-god-I-quit-my-job" week, I headed to the supermarket and made some purchases. It seemed slightly ironic to be buying mounds of beautiful produce, organic yogurts, tofu and Carousel cookies.

Among the partially hydrogenated oils and the added preservatives was a full list of artificial colors. (Hence my unusually painted tongue.) The color list read:

Artificial Colors (Contains FD&C Red #3, Red #4, Yellow #5 and #6, Blue #1 and #2).
So how healthy are artificial colors? What exactly did I consume? I headed to my books for some answers. I can't say that I was thrilled by what I found.

First of all, most artificial food colors are derivatives of petroleum and are coal-tar derivatives. They were essentially introduced and tested on humans. We are now left with a fraction of the first approved colors. The ones no longer being used have proven to be carcinogenic (cancer causing) and toxic.

The colors now on the "safe" list may also be used to color our clothing.

So, to be thorough, lets start with Red #3. It is used in everything from ice cream to cherries. The FDA calls it safe, but it has been suggested that it is linked to gene mutations and changes in brain chemistry. Red #4 may cause cancer in animals. It is used in foods, drugs, and cosmetics. Yellow #5 (tartrazine) causes reactions in individuals sensitive to aspirin and for this reason needs to be listed as Yellow #5 and not just as artificial color. (All of the other colors do not need to be listed separately.) Yellow #6 is considered safe but may cause some allergies. Blue #1 can cause tumors in animals at the site of injection. The World Health Organization rated Blue #2 questionable for use on food. I also discovered that other countries consider some of the artificial food coloring approved by the Federal Drug Administration to be unsafe. Do they know something we don't? And if there is even a question, why are these chemicals on our foods?

My mind took a leap back to the market and I stared to picture the green ketchups and the multicolored wormy treats, and the blue and red tortilla chips. A great deal of the colored foods were marketed toward children. There is some evidence suggesting a link between artificial food coloring and hyperactivity in kids. So why, again, are we putting these chemicals in our food? Why do we feed our children these foods?

What about the foods that do not even appear to be colored artificially? Our meats, yogurts, and baked foods might just be colored for added appeal. Color appeals greatly to our senses. If the orange looks more orange, we buy it. It really does not matter that that orange might be sprayed with cancer causing Citrus Red #2. The not-so-orange orange may be sweeter, but it does not appear to be as healthy. How many times have we made purchases based on the color of a product? If all the candy or cookies or yogurts were made without artificial coloring would we buy them? They would most likely taste the same, if not better.

So, the next time you head to the market, check the labels for artificial colors. You may be surprised to find them in spices and seasonings, shortening, soups, maple syrup, jams, gum, and meats among other foods. Also be aware of your children's toothpaste and medications. Check the labels for natural colors also. These might include carotene, caramel, annatto, beet red, saffron, turmeric, paprika, grapes, vegetable and fruit juices and titanium dioxide. Use your sense of smell as well as your sense of sight when choosing your foods. Buy organic produce and foods when possible. If growers continue to see the demand for organic food, more of them will switch to organic farming. The fewer chemicals in and on our foods, the better.

So, I enjoyed learning a thing or two about color. I plan to still delve into psychology of it all. (I also plan to find a naturally colored alternative to Carousel Cookies for old times sake). Most of the information I gathered on color came from Staying Healthy with Nutrition by Elson M. Haas, MD and the FDA’s website . If you are looking for another view on health matters, The World Health Organization also has website. Happy and healthy eating!

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