THURSDAY, March 31, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Foods that contain dyes used to enhance color don't need warning labels, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel said Thursday.
The advisers' 8-6 vote came in response to concerns, especially from parents, that the commonly used dyes might be linked to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in some children.
The advisory panel made its recommendation based on the FDA's evaluation of existing data, as well as testimony from researchers. It was the lack of rigorous studies, as well as a lack of data, that prompted the panel to ask for more research into the issue and delay a recommendation on artificial food colorings, CNN reported.
The issue pitted the food industry against some parents, public watchdog groups and academics who've long agitated for a closer look at the additives.
The FDA advisers, concluding two days of hearings that featured parents, scientists and food-industry representatives, said there wasn't enough evidence to definitively say that food dyes contribute to ADHD. The FDA is not required to follow the recommendations of its advisory panels, but it usually does so.
Artificial dyes are added to many foods including JELL-O, Lucky Charms, Pop-Tarts, Nestles Butterfinger bars, Hostess Twinkies and Frito-Lay Doritos, to name a few, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The FDA does have regulatory authority over food additives. For example, in 1976, Red No. 2 was banned because it might be cancer-causing.
This week's meeting was significant because it was "the first time the FDA has acknowledged that food dyes may affect children in a limited way," said Dr. David Schab, a psychiatric researcher and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and the New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York City.
Schab, who was scheduled to testify at the hearing, called it "a big step forward."
The question the panel was dealing with was whether the dyes cause ADHD, or might they simply trigger some nonspecific behaviors, such as irritability and insomnia, Schab said.
Jeff Cronin, a spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has long lobbied for a ban on the dyes, said "the evidence that artificial food dyes worsen some children's behavior is pretty convincing."
Cronin had hoped that the FDA panel would recommend warning labels on foods with these additives, and encourage companies to switch to safer colorings.
Given the studies done so far, Schab said he also favored eliminating artificial colorings from foods.
"I would like the FDA to eliminate dyes, but I would also be very happy if we would have a label warning, like the ones that protect Europeans," Schab added. "Labels that warn that these dyes have potential detrimental effects on behavior."
Based on its review of published studies, the FDA at this point said "a causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established."
However, it did go on to say that for some children with ADHD and other behavioral problems, these dyes may exacerbate their problems. But dyes may not be the only food additive that has this effect, the FDA noted.
On the other side of the debate, Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, contended that "the safety of artificial colors has been affirmed through extensive review by the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority, and neither agency sees the need to change current policy."
Kennedy added that "all of the major safety bodies globally have reviewed the available science and have determined that there is no demonstrable link between artificial food colors and hyperactivity among children."
Another industry voice said that food aesthetics matter to American consumers.
In a statement, David Schmidt, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council, said that "food colors add to our enjoyment of food by maintaining or improving their appearance."
"Without sufficient scientific evidence that a causal link truly exists between food colors and hyperactivity in children, communications that suggest a link could have unintended consequences, including unnecessarily frightening consumers about safe ingredients that are consumed every day," he said. "Misguided theories dilute the impact of advice from health professionals on methods that have been found through scientific research to be truly effective in treating ADHD, such as medication and behavior modification."
However, Dr. Roberto F. Lopez-Alberola, chief of pediatric neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, believes the dyes could have neurological effects on children.
"The European Food Safety Authority has made it law that foods that contain these additives have a warning label," he said. "This is already old news in the Old World."
Lopez-Alberola said these dyes make foods more attractive, especially to children, and he speculates that part of the increase in ADHD and autism has resulted from food additives. "It's not the sugar, it could well be these colorants," he said.
Cronin, the spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said there are alternatives to chemical colorings. He said that when warning labels were put on foods in Europe, it caused many U.S.-based food companies to market natural-based food-colored products in Europe.
For more information on ADHD, visit the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.