Last week, the FDA began to reconsider whether artificial food dyes impact our health. The nine dyes currently in use were approved in 1938, and officials have since attested to their safety. Nevertheless, the connection between artificial dyes and ADHD in children has been a matter of debate since the 1970s. The expert panel selected to review the matter reported that the scientific evidence does not merit placing warnings or restrictions on products using the dyes. But it also advised the FDA to pursue additional studies.
The battle over food coloring isn't new. While vegetable-based colorants have been used in food for thousands of years—ancient Egyptian chefs used saffron for yellow, the Romans used mollusks to impart purple hues and the red dye derived from cochineal insects were in use by the Middle Ages—the industrial revolution ushered in new technologies that allowed manufacturers to chemically alter the taste, smell and appearance of food. However, the metallic compounds used to create appetite-whetting hues were toxic—mercury, copper salts and arsenic among them. Farmers and some politicians railed against such practices, deriding them as attempts to bamboozle consumers into buying sub-par products. The controversy over how colorants could be used in foods came to a head in 1886 when margarine became a subject of national debate
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