Some cereals, candies and cakes contain much more artificial coloring than parents probably expect, according to a new study.
In the U.S., food and beverage companies disclose artificial coloring on labels, but do not disclose specific amounts.
Several studies have suggested some children may be sensitive to artificial coloring or the preservatives that often accompany it. The dyes have been linked to inattention and hyperactivity.
For the new study, researchers from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana bought and tested common processed foods to find out how much artificial coloring they included.
Children probably consume more of the heavily dyed foods, since bright colors appeal to kids, the researcher said.
Among breakfast cereals, Fruity Cheerios, Trix and Cap’n Crunch’s OOPS! All Berries had the most artificial dyes, with about 32, 36 and 41 milligrams per serving, respectively.
These cereals also had some of the highest sugar contents. Cap’n Crunch’s OOPS! All Berries contained 15 grams of sugar per serving (nearly four teaspoons worth).
Most of the highly colored cereals contained Red #40, Yellow #6, Yellow #5 or Blue #1, the most popular artificial colors. But some cereals, like Special K Red Berries and Berry Berry Kix, were colored with strawberries or fruit juice and contained no artificial coloring.
Candies, cakes and colored icings also had large amounts of artificial colors. A serving of M&M’s Milk Chocolate included almost 30 milligrams of artificial colors, and a packet of original Skittles had 33 milligrams.
In general, more brightly colored foods and drinks had more dyes in them. But some heavily dyed foods were unexpected.
Some white foods have dye, like marshmallows. The researchers also found that French dressing and cherry pie fillings had color enhancers too. There are also dyes in pediatric medicines, personal care products, mouthwash and toothpaste, they noted.
Natural color alternatives are available, but those don’t stand up to heat, processing and light.
PepsiCo and Kraft Foods, makers of Cap'n Crunch and Kool-Aid, respectively, did not immediately respond when reached for comment.
General Mills said dye levels in Trix cereal would be as much as 30 percent lower than this study found, but could not comment further on the study's particular testing methods.
"Rest assured, if there is new data or research in this area, the FDA will review it thoroughly to determine if a change in current policy is warranted," the Grocery Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, added in a statement. "However, the overwhelming majority of scientific evidence continues to confirm the safety of these artificial food colors. For those consumers who wish to purchase products that do not contain artificial colors, if there is an artificial color in a product, FDA requires that it be listed on the ingredient declaration of the food label."
Many of the studies on artificial colors and behavioral problems were done decades ago and used dosages lower than what kids might actually be eating today, say experts.
Some kids respond to higher amounts of dyes with inattention, hyperactivity, irritability, temper tantrums or trouble sleeping, but researchers don’t understand why or how.
Those behavioral problems don’t manifest in all kids, but tend to be more common among those who already have behavioral issues such as ADHD.
The researchers recommends that parents read labels to avoid artificial colors entirely.
Source: Clinical Pediatrics, online April 24, 2014.
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