Courtney writes:

"So many foods include artificial colors, like yellow 5 lake; red 40 lake, blue 1, and so on.  I have heard from several people that artificial red dyes are the worst. What makes them the worst? Are they really bad for you?"

If you start reading ingredient lists, you might surprised to see how many foods have added colorings. I’m not just talking about rainbow-colored cereals or other garishly tinted items. I’m talking about things like yogurt, cheese, gravy, and crackers—foods that don't look colored at all. For example, a blue dye might be added to make white frosting look whiter.

The synthetic dyes approved by the FDA for use in foods are identified by number, as in "Yellow No. 5" or "Blue No. 1."  The word "lake" indicates that the dye has been mixed with a mineral salt to make it insoluble in water. The straight dyes are generally used in drinks and other liquids. The lake colors are used in baking and other solid foods.

Why are colors added to foods?

Although we may think we don’t want anything unnatural in our food, studies of consumer preference repeatedly show that foods enhanced with synthetic colors are more appealing than foods made without coloring or made with natural colorants.

The color actually affects how we perceive the taste. The macaroni-and-cheese made with yellow dye tastiest creamier and cheesier than the all-natural brand with no coloring added.

How to Use Sensory Science to Improve Your Eating Habits

Synthetic colors tend to be a lot more stable and—ironically—better at making food look the we think it should look. And all of the the colorings approved by the FDA for use in food manufacturing have been thoroughly evaluated for safety. 

Nonetheless, artificial food colors have a bad reputation. In particular, there are persistent concerns that they may cause (or exacerbate) hyperactivity or ADHD in kids.

Does food coloring make kids hyper?

The idea that food colorings might be linked to hyperactivity in kids dates back to the 1970s, when a pediatrician named Ben Feingold proposed a diet that eliminated all artificial colorings and preservatives as a treatment for hyperactivity. He claimed that this protocol was highly effective in reducing symptoms. Other experts have questioned his results, claiming that when kids didn’t do well on the diet, he simply excluded those cases from his data.

What’s the evidence on artificial dyes and hyperactivity?

Nonetheless, Dr. Feingold’s hypothesis spurred others to research the question. It turns out that this is a tricky subject to study. Measuring the level of...

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