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To Eat Artificial Dyes or To Not

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Back in 1955 every refrigerator in the United States probably had a jar of Maraschino cherries tucked on a side shelf. And I bet almost every cupboard had fruit loops, cheerios, jell-o and Cheetos. Except my mother's cupboards. I had to go elsewhere for my Orange dye #1, blue dye #1, Yellow dye #5, red dye #2. One of my grandmother's mantras was "The whiter the bread the sooner your dead." So while my mother was lecturing us to read all ingredients carefully and not to eat anything that had artificial dyes or words we couldn't pronounce, my grandmother visiting from Salt Lake City, was sifting through flours in my mother's cabinets and throwing out all white sugar, corn syrup and bleached white flour.

The debate on artificial dyes and food coloring and whether they are safe for ingestion is back in the news.

A good amount of the artificial dyes used today were approved by the F.D.A. in the 1930s were made of coal tar, they are now made with petroleum. In 1950, many children became ill after eating Halloween candy, which contained Orange Dye #1. In 1976 the F.D.A. finally banned Red Dye #2 because it was "suspected" to be carcinogenic.

In 1972 while I was working with children in a Montessori School in Los Angeles, several of the children had been diagnosed as being hyperactive and put on Ritalin as well as other drugs. I came across the work of Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a pediatric allergist, through one of the mothers whose child had been diagnosed as hyperactive. Rather than using Ritalin or other drugs, Feingold put his young patients on diets that among other things excluded artificial colorings. He was having great success. This mother whose son was working with Feingold, brought in whole grain snacks and fresh fruit for us to give the children for their snacks. She begged us not to reward the children with fruit loops, M & Ms and other foods containing corn syrup and artificial food coloring. I saw a marked improvement in the children's behavior.

My own son, who in his youth was very allergic to meta-bisulfites which during the 1970s and 1980s were used as a preservative in salad bars, was taken to the emergency room several times suffering anaphylactic shock. His father, a chemical engineer, devised a kit that allowed our son to test his food before ingesting it. Since that time, meta-bisulfates have been banned by the FDA in restaurants. Now, when meta-bisulfites are in something, it is shown on the label. For those who are allergic to nuts, an allergy that can also be fatal, it took many years for the labeling to warn that a food had been packaged in a warehouse that contained nuts.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (an advocacy group), petitioned the F.D.A. to ban artificial dyes, or at the very least to place warnings that foods containing artificial food coloring could cause hyperactivity in children. The F.D.A. acknowledged that problems associated with artificial coloring might be similar in affect to peanut allergies inasmuch as only some children are affected by them. "A unique intolerance to these substances and not to any inherent neurotoxic properties," is the way they word it. There are all kinds of folks who will debate and defend food that is filled with additives and coloring, saying that until some "real" proof of danger is found that we should just continue along. What is "real" proof? Physical depletion? Illness? Death? The recent vote by the F.D.A. to not label even a warning of the possibility that some children might be unduly affected by these chemicals, seems crazy.

A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times claimed that our appetites depend largely on the color of food. In taste tests, Cheetos that were not orange, jell-o that was not red, and pickles that were not green were rejected or largely did not interest eaters.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University said, "These dyes have no purpose whatsoever other than to sell junk food."

As far as I am concerned, if Whole Foods and Trader Joes won't sell anything that contains artificial dyes, I not going out of my way to find them. However, I certainly didn't agree with everything my grandmother preached. There's nothing like a great loaf of home made white bread (see recipe on page 297 of the new book, Growing Roots: The New Generation of Sustainable Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists, Sunrise Lane Productions and Chelsea Green Publishers). But I'm going with my grandmother and her philosophy of staying away from corn syrup and artificial food coloring.

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