There's little doubt that colorful food products are more attractive than drab ones, particularly when it comes to children. That's why certain products like breakfast cereals, candy and soft drinks come in all the hues of the rainbow and then some. Whether the dyes that provide that color are safe to consume has been a subject of debate for decades. The latest battle between those who believe that they are harmful and those who do not ended inconclusively last week. A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel ruled that there is not enough evidence to link artificial dyes with hyperactivity in kids.
Had the panel ruled otherwise, it likely would have recommended that more information about the dyes be added to food labels, which currently are required to list food colorings among the ingredients but are not required to carry a warning. The panel's decision, though, was hardly unanimous. The 8-6 vote indicated a split of opinion so notable that the suggestion that additional research on the topic should be heeded. The FDA should promptly undertake the task.
The advisory panel meeting was held in response to a 2008 request by a public service group to ban eight of nine synthetic food dyes commonly used in food products and to make warning labels mandatory until all products using the dyes were removed from the food chain. The request involved only synthetic dyes, not those made from natural ingredients that have FDA approval. The panel's ruling struck down that petition. It did not end the controversy about the dyes.
There is some evidence, many scientists agree, that some synthetic dyes affect some children in different ways. Trouble is, there's little scientific proof that establishes a causal relationship between hyperactivity or other conditions in kids and the dyes. Until that link is established, the panel chose not to recommend the request for labels. All but one of the 14 panelists, though, said further study is needed. That's a reasonable request.
There's too much at stake to ignore it. The use of food dyes in the country has roughly quadrupled since the 1950s, and the use of the chemicals has almost always been challenged. Indeed, the United States, according to experts, now bans more dyes than any other food additive from the marketplace. The question now is whether there is reason to extend those bans.
Until science provides a definitive answer to the dye controversy, it might be wise to avoid dyes in food or, if that's not possible, to use natural food products instead. The FDA panel likely would agree with that advice.