Artifical colours don't mix with food

Photo: istockphoto.com/Bonita Hein

Nothing says St. Patrick's Day like a playful pint of green beer or for the kids, a glass of celebratory green ginger ale. Though a few drops of dye now and then may seem harmless enough, navigating the world of food colourings and additives can be complicated.

Unnatural colour
It's no stretch of the imagination to think that artificial colours might be bad for us: anyone who has stuck out their tongue after slurping on a bright blue slushy or plucked the Maraschino cherry from atop an ice cream sundae can attest to the fact that their hues are far from natural.

But from egg yolks to soft drinks and everything in between, food dyes are extremely prevalent in our over-processed world. Though generally considered safe for human consumption, food colourings can still have negative effects on our health.

Fooling the tastebuds
Food producers first used coloured dyes to disguise poor quality products. They soon discovered that they were also good for making food look the way consumers expected it to -- think bright pink strawberry ice cream or purple grape juice.

Even natural foods, like oranges and salmon, are often enhanced with colour to make them appear mored uniform. Though the artificial hues were first derived from nature, scientists soon found it more effective to generate the colours using chemicals in labs.

Paint by numbers
In North America, the bodies that test food additives now use FD&C (Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics) numbers to approved food dyes. They range from Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue FCF) to Red No. 3 (Erythrosine) and Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine) to Green No.3 (Fast Green). European countries are staring to ban many of these colours, including Fast Green and Brilliant Blue.

Yellow side effects
Some colours have special kind a wallop. Tartrazine, for example, the yellow used to colour corn chips, cereals and chewing gum, the same golden hue that's injected into lemon and honey-flavoured projects, has been shown to be one of the worst when it comes to our health. From anxiety and migraines, to clinical depression and sleep disturbances, Tartrazine has been linked to a number of nasty conditions in a small percentage of the population.

Seeing red
Red #3 (or Erythrosine) -- the same stuff used to colour fruit cocktail and most of our candies -- has been shown to cause tumours in rats. And again, although the cancer risk for humans is said to be small, it's a risk we're taking in the name of brighter, redder cherries!

And sometimes it's only down the road that we discover that food additives which at first seemed safe are, in fact, harmful to our health. For example, in 2005, Sudan 1 -- a type of dye used to colour chili powder and Worcester sauce, both used in hundreds of supermarket foods -- made headlines in Great Britain after it was linked to an increased risk of cancer. The same thing happened several years ago in the United States, when red M&Ms disappeared from candy bags across the country.

Sugar and speed
Some researchers have even linked food dyes to childhood hyperactivity. It's a phenomenon made worse by the fact that many processed foods -- from the brightly coloured cereals, juice, Jello and ice cream -- are often coloured to be more appealing to the younger palettes they're targeting. The loads of additional sugars don't help anything either.

Homemade is still best
While it's not crucial to banish food dyes from your life, it makes sense to keep the additives you consume to a minimum. The easiest way is to avoid over-processed, over-packaged foods. And read food labels -- the longer the list of additives, the more likely it is that you'll be sucking back chemical colours. You can check with the FDA for their most recent list of both approved and delisted food dyes.

Go with natural
Nature supplies us with all sorts of beautiful hues -- from the rich red of beet juice, to ochre coloured turmeric, golden saffron and warm, brown caramelized sugar. Remember: eating a brightly coloured diet is the key to good health -- just make sure you know where you colours are coming from!

Meredith Dault is a journalist based in Halifax who no longer eats red smarties.