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CSPI on food coloring: a pointless warning

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The ever-alarmist Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI) published a pointless article this weekend on the actual food colors used in various colorful foods. Referring to a piece of interesting but ultimately useless research in Clinical Pediatrics by Laura Stevens and other researchers at Purdue’s Nutrition Science department, the CSPI article breathlessly notes that

Clinical trials have shown that modest percentages of children are affected by doses up to 35 mg of mixtures of synthetic coloring, with larger percentages generally being affected by doses of 100 mg or more. The amount of dye that is needed to trigger reactions in the most sensitive children is not known.

They also claim that “Until now, how much of these neurotoxic chemicals are used in specific foods was a well-kept secret…”

However, there is little evidence that the CSPI’s extravagantly scarey claims are true. The most commonly cited papers on hyperactivity and food colorings were two papers by Jim Stevenson at the University of Southhampton. But when the FDA convened a 2011 conference to consider warning labels on food coloring ingredients, they commissioned Oak Ridge National Laboratory to review that work and concluded:

However, due to the absence of confirmation of treatment effects between parental ratings and other behavior measures together with the concerns about the data analyses described above and various procedural weaknesses … it is the opinion of this reviewer that there is questionable confidence in the reliability and biological relevance of the primary findings from this study.

Ultimately, the FDA committee voted that current data supported that FDAs conclusion that a relationship between certified color additives and adverse effects on behavior in children had not been established.

Since then, Nigg has published a 2012 meta-analysis of papers on food colors effects on children, concluding that there may be a small effect, but this was affected by publication bias:

A restriction diet benefits some children with ADHD. Effects of food colors were notable were but susceptible to publication bias or were derived from small, nongeneralizable samples. Renewed investigation of diet and ADHD is warranted.

With these studies in hand, it is difficult to understand why Laura Stevens’ Purdue group undertook these complex colorimetric studies. Her papers feature extensive tables showing the exact amount of colors their group measured in sodas, cereals, candies and dairy foods. While these tables are interesting and represent a lot of work, Stevens cites these same papers, clearly aware of their less than persuasive conclusions.

The best they can conclude is should you wish to try to try an Artificial Food Coloring (AFC)-free diet (which she knows has little effect) these tables will help you do so.

So to conclude, there is little evidence supporting the assertion the AFCs are harmful to children or anyone else and you need not concern yourself with the CSPI’s alarmist pronouncements.

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