Jane Says: You Can Avoid Artificial Ingredients in Easter Candy

Staying away from synthetic colors and flavors in the rest of your diet, however, is more difficult.

(Photo: John Brian Silverio/Flickr)

Apr 1, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

As if all the sugar in candy isnt enough to worry about, now the dangers of artificial dyes are in the news. Any words of advice for a concerned Easter Bunny?

Maria Guerrero

For those celebrating Easter—or simply the arrival of a long-awaited spring—the holiday is a great excuse to indulge in sweet treats. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers will spend more than $2.2 billion on jelly beans, chocolate bunnies, and Peeps. Comparatively, they’ll spend $2.4 billion on gifts, $1.1 billion on flowers, $998 million on decorations, and $695 million on greeting cards. I couldn’t find any national data on the projected Easter offerings in the collection plates at churches, but I sure would be interested to find out.

Anyhoo, when it comes to artificial food colors (AFCs, in industry-speak), their purpose is purely cosmetic. They hide or enhance the unadulterated colors in processed foods and are brighter, cheaper, and more stable when subjected to heat and light than natural coloring agents. Their potential health risks have been studied and debated for decades; you’ll find a helpful roundup in a 2010 report published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Of particular interest to parents and educators is research that links AFCs to hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children. Perhaps the most widely cited is the Feingold Hypothesis, named for the California pediatric allergist Ben Feingold, who, back in the 1970s, advocated a diet that eliminated, among other things, foods with artificial colorings, artificial sweeteners, and certain preservatives. Much of his data was based on anecdotal evidence, and subsequent clinical trials have had mixed results, as described by nutrition and public health authority Marion Nestle on her Food Politics blog in March 2011. For the record, Nestle (whose name is pronounced “NESS-el”) is not—I repeat, not—related in any way to the multinational food corporation Nestlé (“ness-LEE”).

“The food industry needs food dyes badly,” Nestle wrote. “But nobody else does. Parents of hyperactive kids can easily do their own experiment and see if removing food colors helps calm their kids down.”

“It would be nice to have more conclusive research,” she continued. “In the meantime, read food labels!” Amen to that.

Given that our food system is awash with the nine AFCs approved by the Food and Drug Administration, an Easter candy splurge is nothing compared with a regular diet that includes breakfast cereals, yogurt, frozen desserts, pickles, boxed mac and cheese, packaged snacks and baked goods, and beverages such as soft drinks and energy/sports drinks. Disquieting research from Purdue University, first published in April 2014 in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, shows that children are consuming far greater amounts of the dyes, even in a single serving, than previously thought.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, many studies were conducted giving children 26 mg of a mixture of dyes. Only a few children seemed to react to the dyes, so many doctors concluded that a dye-free diet was pointless,” said Laura Stevens, lead author of the study, in a May 2014 update from CSPI. “Later studies using larger doses showed that a much larger percentage of children reacted. But some researchers considered those doses unrealistically high. It is now clear that even the larger amounts may not have been high enough. The time is long past due for the FDA to get dyes out of the food supply or for companies to do so voluntarily and promptly.”

As a result of a 2007 study by the University of Southampton, Britain has moved away from AFCs, and the European Parliament requires a warning label on products containing them. And notwithstanding the status quo findings of an FDA panel in 2011, the United States is following suit. Kraft, General Mills, Frito-Lay, and Pepperidge Farms have removed AFCs from some of their products.

And Nestlé USA (which is not—I repeat, not—related to the acclaimed nutrition and public health authority Marion Nestle) recently made headlines when it announced it will remove all artificial colors and flavors from its chocolate candies by the end of 2015. By the middle of the year, revamped products such as Butterfinger candy bars (in which the Red 40 and Yellow 5 in the crisp orange center will be replaced by annatto, derived from the seeds of the achiote tree) are to be identified by a “No Artificial Flavors or Colors” claim on the package. Considering that about three years ago the company reformulated its entire range for the U.K., replacing more than 80 ingredients with alternatives from natural sources such as carrot, hibiscus, radish, safflower, and lemon, we can only presume more products for American consumers will follow.

Candy, of course, is not health food, no matter what type of coloring agents it contains. But Easter only comes once a year. Candy that’s free of AFCs is available at the Natural Candy Store, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s; Target and CVS carry Unreal Candy. And guess what? Store managers really listen to their customers, so if you want them to carry AFC-free candies or other products, let them know. If they have already given up some of that oh-so-valuable shelf space to AFC-free products, tell them how much you appreciate it.

This week, just because it’s spring, you get a bonus! Here’s how to make natural Easter egg dyes, courtesy of Organic Gardening.