Part 2: How to avoid artificial colours in your food?
We are living in fast-paced, hectic times with tight schedules. This explains our increasing dependency on fast food – which supposedly makes our lives easier and offers tremendous convenience. Most times these readymade, processed foods are full of artificial ingredients – such as artificial food dyes, flavour enhancers and preservatives – which are thrown in to the mix. The purpose? To make these foods more appetizing, flavoursome and long-lasting. Result? Food with low nutritional value, poor health benefits (more accurately stated as NO health benefits) and long-term side effects.
In the first part of this series on Artificial Food Dyes, Toxic Colours with a Rainbow of Health Risks, we discussed in detail why food manufacturers use synthetic dyes in food and what are the health risks associated with their consumption   . In this second part, we are going to talk about how you can limit this intake and achieve a healthy outcome.
The health impact of food dyes is maximum when it comes to children . And it doesn’t help either that it is the children who suffer the maximum exposure, with so many food products specifically targeted for them. Interestingly, Europe has been quite ahead of the curve when it comes to banning or mandating that foods with artificial colours should come with a label. Did you know that Nutri-grain bars in the United Kingdom are made using only the natural colours from beetroot red, annatto and paprika extract, whereas in the United States of America the same brand Nutri-grain bars use artificial colour dyes? McDonald's strawberry sundae in the UK have real strawberries lending that distinct colour. And in the USA? That tell-tale colour in the sundae is achieved by using red 40.
No doubt, colourful food is appetizing and enticing. And adding artificial food colour (AFC) is nothing but a clever strategy on the part of food companies, considering how we are programmed to pick colourful, vibrant food as it is supposed to be more nutritious. But is all colourful food healthy? No, especially when it is made so by artificial means. We must understand that food companies add AFCs to processed food that has almost no nutritional value to offer. It is only done to transform the life-less, dull processed food into something that now looks fresh and healthy.
So, can we do anything to remove these fake colours from our food? Yes, it is just the matter of being aware of the health risks and making smart food choices. Are you aware of the kind of foods that are more likely to have artificial food dyes? There are some common and obvious culprits, but some healthy sounding foods may also have these fake colourants.
Common sources of artificial food dyes
- Beverages like processed fruit juices, soft drinks, sports and energy drinks
- Boxed macaroni and cheese
- Breakfast cereals
- Candies, cookies, gummy bears
- Readymade snacks and meals
- Ice cream
- Cakes and frostings
- Cookies and doughnuts
If you thought that artificial food dyes are only found in neon drinks, and fluorescent candies and gummy bears, well, it is time to think again. These are, of course, the obvious suspects. However, you may be shocked to learn that these artificial colours have sneaked their way into so called healthy, wholesome foods, for example:
- Whole wheat pizza bases, brown bread, brown cereal
- Flavoured yogurt
- Flavoured apple sauce
- Barbeque sauce
- Children’s medication (cough syrups, antibiotics, vitamin supplements)
- Over the counter and prescription drugs
- Toothpaste, mouthwash
- Microwave popcorn
- Whole grain cereals with fruit
- Salad dressings
- White foods, for example marshmallows, coffee creamer, mayonnaise, vanilla ice creams
- Potato and corn chips
- Blueberry muffin mixes
- Cherry pie filling
- Jams and marmalade
- Rice mixes
- Ban or limit your intake of pre-packaged food. Instead, go for fresh food. Choose fresh vegetables and fruits in red, yellow, orange and green colour. Remember colour in food is good only if it is natural versus what is made from coal tar and petroleum. Fresh food is loaded with a wide spectrum of nutrients – including vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. Fresh, plant based foods are also a rich source of fibre – needed for a healthy digestive tract. Fibre also helps to maintain healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
- Read labels carefully. On your next trip to the supermarket, don’t blindly toss food items in your shopping cart. Read the list of ingredients and if it has any names with numbers, skip it. Also, avoid any food with words like ‘added colour’ or ‘artificial colour’ on the label. Some labelling can be deceptive, so read between the words.
- Go organic. That way you can be sure you are eating food that is completely free from all things artificial, for example preservatives, colours, and flavour enhancers.
- Bake from scratch instead of buying pre-made cake mixes.
- Talk to your kids. Most of the colourful food loaded with artificial colours is intended for children. Educate your kids why fake food colours are so harmful to our overall health and encourage them to make healthy food choices.
- Want to add some pop to your cakes and muffins? Use natural food colourings that are derived from plants. For example, annatto, paprika extract, beet juice, pomegranate juice, pandan, elderberry, turmeric, matcha powder, saffron, cranberry juice, and cochineal (also called Carmine) – and there are many others.
A word of caution: Certain food dyes, for example annatto and cochineal, may trigger allergic reactions in some people.
Raise your voice. IT IS important.
The US FDA, and similar Government authorities in countries around this amazing planet, demands evidence. Fortunately, this is not what drives the food business. You, as a consumer, hold great power. Your response to the prevalent products, whether good or bad, can make a huge difference in the supply chain. In addition, there is no dearth of platforms where you can voice your opinions, ask questions, and demand a change. You can raise your voice on social media or join online petitions and consumer right groups that are working hard in removing artificial food dyes from our everyday food. Some food companies are already paying heed to the raising concerns. Some of them like Mars, Subway, Kraft and Nestle are planning to, or have replaced artificial food dyes with natural colours. It is totally up to us to open our eyes and make healthy choices for ourselves and our children.
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- Arnold LE, Lofthouse N, Hurt E. Artificial food colours and attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms: conclusions to dye for. Neurotherapeutics. 2012 Jul; 9(3):599-609.
- Food Dyes – A rainbow of Risks. CSIP. 2010.
- Laura J. Stevens, John R. Burgess, Mateusz A. Stochelski, Thomas Kuczek. Amounts of Artificial Food Dyes and Added Sugars in Foods and Sweets Commonly Consumed by Children. Journal Clinical Pediatrics.