- The FDA believes synthetic food dyes have no effect on health or behavior. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement associating food coloring with exacerbations of ADD/ADHD
- Food coloring is strictly regulated in Europe, where products must carry warning labels. Many European companies choose to use natural color dyes, but only a few American companies have followed suit
- Recent data find hair dye and hair straighteners increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, showing the risk disproportionately affected different groups of women
- There are several modifiable risk factors affecting the level of risk for developing breast cancer, including diet and metabolic flexibility, which improve with a ketogenic diet and intermittent fasting
Color is used to market products and services, including those which affect our health. It appears that the first color used in art drawings was red, derived from ochre.1 The painting has been dated at 100,000 years old. Red often evokes feelings of strength, virility and fertility.
Blue seems to be the world’s favorite color according to various surveys. It may be a result of the calming effect the color has. Students who were given IQ tests with blue color covers had results of a few points higher than those given with red covers.
Green is associated with the natural world but is also linked to envy, jealousy and illness. Purple was the first color in synthetic form when in 1856 a chemistry student did an experiment to cure malaria. The experiment failed but produced a permanent purple dye.
Color plays a large part in graphic design as it can help set a mood or drive a point home. Women have been using hair color to change their look for centuries. By the same token, food manufacturers have been using food dye to improve the visual presentation of processed foods in hopes of making them more visually appealing.
However, while color is a powerful means of presenting a product or changing emotions, when the dyes are not natural, the end result often does not have the positive experience you were seeking.
Dyes May Have a Negative Effect on Behavior
Is it safe to assume eating petroleum products has no effect on health and behavior? The FDA believes this is the case. Despite their own statement acknowledging there may be a link between behavioral issues and specific artificial dyes,2 they continue to allow them in foods, medications and beverages.
Interestingly, certain colors are only allowed in specific foods, such as orange B, which is approved only for hot dogs and sausage casings. This also begs the question, why does the opaque casing of sausage need color?
Many children do not appear to be affected by the color dyes — but the operative word is “appear,” since only those children whose parents have identified overt behavioral issues after consuming foods with color dyes have brought the issue to the forefront. The FDA exempts colors produced naturally from vegetables, minerals or animals from certification factors:
“These include the short and long-term effects of consumption, composition and properties, manufacturing process, stability, likely amount of consumption/exposure, and the availability of analytical methods for determining its purity and the amount in food.”
One parent identified several long- and short-term “effects” from the dyes in her son, Alex Bevans. Bevans’ mother spoke to KQED3 and recounted a time when he was 7 years old when she found him “shredding his clothes and scratching himself on his bed. “He looked at me and said, ‘Please get me a knife. I want to kill myself. I don’t want to live like this anymore.'”
She went on to explain the symptoms they have been able to correlate with the different colored dyes:
“So red … he can’t pay attention and he’s impulsive. Green makes him manic. Blue makes him grumpy and tired. Yellow is the worst. He’s explosive and it leads to suicidal ideation.”
Bevans may have more symptoms than most, but Lisa Lefferts, scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), says he is not alone. Although the organization has been slow to act in the past, they are currently lobbying the FDA to follow regulations similar to those used in Europe.4
“We’ve been contacted by over 2,000 families reporting their experiences with food dyes. The parents say that when their child is off of dyes they’re just lovely children. On dyes they’re like a completely different person.”
Food Dyes Not Adequately Tested for Safety
Warning labels are applied to all foods using artificial colors in Europe. Most European companies choose to use natural colored dyes so they don’t have to use a warning label related to chemical dyes. A few American companies are using this strategy but have found that natural, healthier dye is more expensive and not as stable on the shelf.
The FDA has approved nine colors made from petroleum, which are found in 90% of candies, fruit flavored snacks and drink mixes aimed at children. Joel Nigg, Ph.D., researcher from Oregon Health and Science University, finds past studies may show a cause and effect relationship between behavior changes and artificial dye if the data are taken at face value.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reversed a previous position and issued a policy statement in 2018 in which they said,5 “Artificial food colors may be associated with exacerbation of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms.” Dr. Leonardo Trasande, involved in writing the AAP statement, said:6
“The AAP has concerns about the limited safety testing available on chemicals intentionally and unintentionally added to foods, including food dyes. There are safe and simple steps families can take to limit children’s exposure to these chemicals.”
Nigg believes more robust data are needed to make a delineation between behavior and artificial food dyes, but it is clear they are not benign. He went on to say,
“I think we’ll be surprised in the future that we were so laissez-faire about adding so many synthetic chemicals and thinking they wouldn’t do anything to children’s brains.”
Link Found Between Permanent Hair Dye and Breast Cancer
It is reasonable to assume that if artificial colors have an adverse effect on children, they will also have adverse effects in adults. Scientists who published a recent study in the International Journal of Cancer7 acknowledged many hair products contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals and carcinogenic compounds that are potentially relevant to breast cancer.
The researchers used a national prospective cohort to look at any associations among the use of hair dyes, chemical relaxers and straighteners in relation to breast cancer risk, by ethnicity. Participants were engaged from the Sister Study, including 46,709 women ages 35 to 74 who had a sister diagnosed with breast cancer but were cancer free themselves.
When the participants were enrolled, 55% reported having used permanent hair dye, which was associated with a 45% higher risk of breast cancer in black women and a 7% higher risk in white women. In all participants, using hair straightener every five to eight weeks was associated with a 30% higher breast cancer risk.8
Nonprofessional application of semi-permanent dye or hair straightener on someone else also increased the risk of breast cancer. Dr. Otis Brawley, who served as executive vice president of the American Cancer Society from 2007 to 2018, was not surprised.
When speaking to Newsweek, he said: “Many of us have worried that the chemicals in especially the permanent hair dyes and hair straighteners have the potential to cause cancer.”
Straighteners and Dyes Disproportionately Affect Groups
The disparity in risk potential between black and white women increased further to 60% in those who used hair dye heavily, defined as application once every five to eight weeks. By contrast, the same risk for white women using the same application rate rose from 7% to 8%.
When the researchers factored dye color, dark dye was linked with a 51% increase in black women and an 8% increased danger in white women. The same discrepancy existed in those who used light hair dye. Black women had a 46% increased risk for breast cancer, while white women had a 12% increased risk.
The racial variations may have been linked to the way the dye is used or the differences in the products marketed to different audiences. Dr. Stephanie Bernik, chief of breast surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, told Newsweek that black women begin with an increased risk of breast cancer, making it difficult to draw a clear association between hair product use and cancer risk. She went on to say:9
“Having said that, I do believe the study gives us enough evidence to call for a prospective trial designed to specifically look at this one factor to see if the increased risk of cancer persists. In the meantime, I would caution patients that there is a possible link between hair dyes and cancer, although more research is needed.”
Lifestyle Choices Affect Risk for Breast Cancer
There are several modifiable factors that may increase your risk of breast cancer, including being overweight or obese after menopause, taking hormones, drinking alcohol and being physically inactive.10 Factors you can’t change are advancing age, personal and family history, genetic mutations and past radiation treatments.
As you might expect, diet can also help prevent and play an important role in the treatment of breast cancer. The nutritional approach with the strongest scientific support is time-restricted eating, which increases metabolic autophagy, lowers insulin resistance, radically increases metabolic flexibility and improves your mitochondrial function.
When exercise is added during the fasting window, these benefits increase. However, the vast majority have adapted to burning carbohydrates as a primary fuel as opposed to fat. One of the most effective strategies to become an effective fat burner is fasting 16 to 18 hours each day.
Since cancer is a metabolic disease rooted in mitochondrial dysfunction, cancer cells require glucose for fuel and are unable to exist by burning fat. Cells must be healthy and normal to burn fat, so a high-fat, low-sugar diet will essentially starve cancer cells. See “What to Do if You Are Diagnosed With Breast Cancer,” for further discussion on prevention and treatment options.
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