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Should consumers still be concerned about food dyes?

EarthTalk
earthtalk@emagazine.com
The Center for Science in the Public Interest found compelling evidence that ingestion of artificial food dyes can contribute to hyperactivity, restlessness and attention problems in some children, especially those with ADHD. Fortunately, there are now natural alternatives available, made primarily from vegetable colorants. Photo courtesy of the Hemera Collection

Dear EarthTalk: Ever since the red dye No. 2 scare in the 1970s I’ve been wary of using food colorings or buying food that appears to contain them. Are there natural and healthy food colorings?

Nancy McFarlane

Methuen, Mass.

Many of us are still wary of food dyes because of reports about links between red dye No. 2 and cancer in the 1970s. While red dye No. 2 was subsequently banned from products sold in the United States, many health-conscious consumers continue to avoid foods with other artificial colors or dyes—even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still considers them safe for human consumption.

But a 2010 analysis of past research on links between food dyes and health by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found compelling evidence that ingestion of artificial dyes can contribute to hyperactivity, restlessness and attention problems in some children — particularly those with ADHD.

“What’s more, the studies suggested that removing dyes from those children’s diet was a quarter to half as effective in reducing those symptoms as giving the kids Ritalin or other stimulants,” reports Nancy Cordes, CBS News’ Consumer Safety Correspondent. “In other words, certain kids with ADHD might not need drugs if the artificial dyes were removed from their diets.” Several commonly used artificial food dyes are suspected carcinogens as well.

While it might be impossible to prevent your children from eating anything with artificial dye, you can do your part by shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s — both chains have banned products that use artificial dyes and carry all-natural food coloring for home cooking and baking projects.

One brand to look for is India Tree, which makes a line of food coloring derived from vegetable colorants. The company’s “Nature’s Colors Natural Decorating Colors” contain no corn syrup or synthetic dyes, and are highly recommended for coloring icing in rich jewel tones or soft pastels.

Another company specializing in natural (as well as organic) food colors is Nature’s Flavors, whose products are widely used commercially in ice cream, baked goods, frosting, dairy products, syrups, sauces, beverages and even hair colors. The company recently began to sell their products to consumers, as well as through retail stores. They use a variety of plant materials, including beets, turmeric root, annatto seeds, purple carrot, purple cabbage, gardenia flowers, hibiscus flowers and grape skin. “Our natural food colors are made from plants and contain powerful antioxidants, which help the body repair itself from the effects of oxidation,” claims Nature’s Flavors. “Using natural or organic food colors may actually help the brain and slow down the effects of aging.”

Another leading maker of all-natural food coloring is Chef-master, whose products can be found at Whole Foods and other natural and high-end food retailers, as well as on www.amazon.com and elsewhere online.

CPSI would like the FDA to ban eight of the most common artificial dyes, or at least affix a warning label to products that contain them: “Warning: The artificial coloring in this food causes hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children.” In the meantime, concerned eaters should stick with products, stores and restaurants that use natural ingredients.

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that global warming could negatively impact water supplies in the U.S.?

Penny Wilcox

Austin, Texas

Climate change promises to have a very big impact on water supplies in the United States as well as around the world. A recent study commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group, and carried out by the consulting firm Tetra Tech found that one out of three counties across the contiguous U.S. should brace for water shortages by mid-century as a result of human induced climate change. The group found that 400 of these 1,100 or so counties will face “extremely high risks of water shortages.”

According to Tetra Tech’s analysis, parts of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas will be hardest hit by warming-related water shortages. The agriculturally focused Great Plains and arid Southwest are at highest risk of increasing water demand outstripping fast dwindling supplies.

While the mechanisms behind this predicted dwindling of water supplies is complex, key factors include: rising sea levels and encroaching ocean water absorbing lower elevation freshwater sources; rising surface temperatures causing faster evaporation of existing reservoirs; and increasing wildfires stripping terrestrial landscapes of their ability to retain water in soils.

Researchers have already begun to notice dwindling water supplies across the American West in recent years, given less accumulation of snow in the region’s mountains as temperatures rise. According to a 2008 study out of the Scripps Institute for Oceanography and published in the journal Science, Western snowpack has been melting earlier than it did in the past thanks to global warming, leading to markedly longer dry periods through the late spring and summer months in states already suffering from extended droughts. Given that the length and strength of these changes over the last 50 years cannot be explained by natural variations, researchers believe human induced climate change is the culprit.

The upshot of these changes is that Americans of every stripe need to curtail their water usage—from farmers irrigating their crops to homeowners watering their lawns to you and I taking shorter showers and turning off the tap while brushing our teeth. Even more important, water and resource policy managers need to conceive of new paradigms for the management of freshwater reserves to make the most of what we do have. And all of us need to work together to cut down on the emissions of greenhouse gases that have led to global warming in the first place.

Analysts also worry that warming-related water shortages could erupt into conflict, especially in parts of the world where one country or group controls water resources needed by others across national borders, such as the Middle East where already five percent of the world’s population relies on just one percent of the world’s fresh water. Parts of Africa, India and Asia are also at risk for water-related conflicts. American policymakers hope that the situation won’t get that dire in the U.S., but only time will tell.

EarthTalk is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe.