Dye's Death or Dragon's Breath

04/06/2011 06:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2011
  • Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in neurophysiology

As readers of the Huffington Post know well, food safety advocates have for some time been working to ban artificial coloring from our foods, or barring that, forcing manufacturers to print warning labels on any products containing dyes. In the most recent skirmish, advocacy organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest have claimed that evidence sufficiently proves such dyes cause hyperactivity in children.

We have here the case of bad science, or good science being misrepresented, combining with a popular press incapable of assessing scientific claims, to create misleading or false conclusions. The general public is caught in the middle, whipsawed between conflicting claims among competing authorities with impressive credentials. Meanwhile, mom and dad, desperate to protect their children, are unable to distill the truth from the fiction, the meat from the myth.

Which brings us to the idea that the dye controversy raises two intertwined but distinct issues: food safety and scientific literacy. Let's tackle food dyes first.

Let's be clear about an important point right up front: I am no fan of food colorings. Their primary purpose is to deceive consumers making pale fruit look hale and wan vegetables appear fresh. Of course virtually all soft drinks are colored to specification by artificial means. Dyes make an easy and appropriate target for elimination or labeling because we would all be better off without them. Certainly they are not health foods. But making false claims about the effects of dyes does society no good either.

The popular press has since 2008 been reporting a possible link between artificial colors in food and adverse effects in children. Reports have linked dyes to ADHD, hyperactivity, cancer in animal studies, and various allergic reactions.

But as with many issues impacting society the valid concerns of parents have accelerated past the science. In fact, there is no unequivocal, or even terribly convincing, evidence that dyes cause the alleged harm. Perhaps dyes are harmful; but the fact is we simply do not have proof or even any compelling evidence shy of proof they are dangerous.

We have been here before. The classic example where this false claim of causation leads to great harm is what happened with autism and vaccines. Because of one paper published in 1998 in the medical journal Lancet, subsequently withdrawn for suspicions of scientific fraud, and fully discredited by later study, tens of thousands of parents risk their children's health by withholding critical vaccinations against terrible diseases. Rates of childhood immunization for measles, mumps, and rubella have yet to fully recover from the impact of this one discredited paper. And many parents still insist that vaccines cause autism, even in the absence of any evidence to support the claim with the withdrawal of the original paper. Myth has usurped fact.

The problem there, and now with dyes, is partly due to the confusion of correlation and causation. Perhaps we can indeed correlate specific behavioral maladies with the presence of certain dyes in foods; the problem is that those foods contain multiple compounds, any one of which could be the cause, if there is a cause at all.

The bottom line is that there is no good scientific evidence that dyes cause the problems we see. A few studies are indeed suggestive, but far from conclusive. Appropriately, the FDA has formed an advisory committee to study the issue. But it would be foolhardy to draw conclusions prior to gathering the evidence. In doing so, we spend money chasing a ghost instead of on those issues with the biggest public health impacts.

There are many good reasons to eliminate artificial coloring from our foods, and I encourage any efforts along those lines. But we simply cannot conclude, with what we know now, that dyes are causing behavior problems in our children -- any more than we could conclude that autism was caused by vaccinations.

We cannot claim a result because that is the result we want; the facts must speak for themselves. But if we cannot speak the language of facts, if we are incapable of evaluating the validity of a claim solely on merit, we are all vulnerable to manipulation. And the sad state of public education in the United States makes us very vulnerable indeed. If you have doubts, just look at the results from Newsweek's recent survey of 1000 American citizens, almost 40% of which failed the test necessary to gain citizenship. Forty-two percent of Americans could not name our mortal enemy, the Taliban, but seventy-five percent of Brits could. We lag terribly behind the rest of the modern world in mathematics.

Nearly one-third of Americans cannot name the current vice president; seven-three percent could not explain why we fought the Cold War; forty-four percent were stumped when asked to define the Bill of Rights. We cannot realistically expect a citizen who has not been taught about the Bill of Rights to know the difference between an atom and a molecule, to know what a vitamin is or an enzyme, or the definition of species, or the meaning of a calorie, or to understand dose-response curves, or to distinguish between correlation and causation.

Ignorance of the most basic scientific principles and facts prevents the public from distinguishing the dangerous from the harmless and from preventing the abuse of science for malevolent purposes. On the basis of bad science, governments support costly efforts to enforce ill-conceived laws to protect consumers from nonexistent or negligible risk, while draining resources from areas of critical need. We worry about food dyes but are ill-prepared for biological warfare.

Ignorance of science allows the public to be deceived by a barrage of dubious claims. The anti-vaccine movement is a classic case, well beyond the claims concerning autism. Vaccines are one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine, saving hundreds of millions of lives and improving the quality of life for countless others, but because of medical illiteracy, misplaced religious zeal or discredited science, some parents are, in a display of dangerous ignorance, forcing school boards across the country to accept students with no vaccination history.

But vaccinations however are only the tip of a dangerous iceberg. Scientific illiteracy is pervasive, and the list of consequences almost endless. The public is unable to filter exaggerated claims by environmental groups (remember Alar in apples) from legitimate concerns (global climate change). People opposed to irradiated food ignore the existence of more than 50 known strains of E. coli that can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, and death. This is a typical case of poor risk-benefit analysis. People are duped by claims of harmful emissions from cell phones. Life-saving diagnostic x-rays are eschewed from fear of radiation, and vulnerable people are persuaded to rely on crystals and astrology for guidance.

Without an ability to reason critically, people believe in weeping statues of the Virgin Mary, the existence of a carved face on Mars, out-of-body experiences, and Christ's image captured on the Shroud of Turin. Among the most notable miraculous relics of Catholicism is the much publicized "blood" of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples. Since the fourteenth century, a substance said to be the dried blood of the martyred saint periodically liquefies and reddens, indicating good years and bad according to legend. Virtually the entire metropolitan congregation turns out once a year to wait anxiously as the miracle proclaims the city's fate. The explanation is absolutely trivial. Many substances, including mixtures readily available to medieval chemists, have the property exhibited by the purported blood.

Religion has no monopoly on uncritical thinking. Former NASA administrator Dan Goldin, while defending funding for the space agency, was famously asked, "Why are we building meteorological satellites when we have the Weather Channel?" Critical thinking is an endangered species.

To fight this scourge of illiteracy, people must move beyond silly controversy, such as whether to teach evolution in our schools, and emphasize the basics of reading, language proficiency, history, math, and science from the early grades, and build on that foundation through to graduation. To combat scientific illiteracy, middle school students should be required to demonstrate a minimal level of scientific knowledge against a national or international standard as a requirement for graduation. Society does no service to the student or to itself by graduating children ill-prepared for today's world, incapable for example of evaluating unsubstantiated claims about food dyes and hyperactive kids.

Sure, let's get rid of food dyes, but let's do so for the right reasons based on sound scientific methods, not because we fabricate or misinterpret or simply believe on faith that dyes adversely impact our health.

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of, A New Moral Code (Jacquie Jordan, Inc). Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook.