These Are Not Food, They’re Pretty Poisons

“Look what we’re having for snack?!” my son’s first grade friend said excitedly. He held up the box of faux fruit gummy snacks that his parents (one of whom is a doctor) brought to share with the class.

My son was delighted. I was disgusted.

The first ingredient: high fructose corn syrup.

The second ingredient: sugar.

Among the other ingredients: Artificial flavors, Red dye #40, and Yellow Dye #5.

In what way could this product possibly be construed as food?

No one would ever consider putting diesel fuel in a car that runs on unleaded gas. Yet we treat our children’s bodies with less respect than our cars, loading them up with substances that are barely edible (these artificial dyes come in large plastic canisters and look exactly like paint; they are actually made from petroleum products), and that have been shown to cause cancer in industry-sponsored studies on animals and hyperactivity in some children.

I grew up eating Froot Loops, delighting in the brightly colored syrupy milk left in the bottom of the bowl.

To this day I don’t understand why my parents bought that kind of processed junk food laden with toxins and fed it to my brother and me day after day.

The FDA is now considering whether this kind of crap that is passed off as food should carry warning labels. (Read more about this in this New York Times article. There’s also this excellent article by Christina Le Beau, “Food-dye news every skeptic should read.”)

Yes! Yes! Food with artificial dyes in it should contain warning labels.

But we should go one step further: these artificial petroleum-based dyes need to be taken out of American food.

They are nothing more than pretty poisons, used to color up faux processed food that our kids should not be eating.

To get rid of them permanently would be surprisingly easy, since many companies have already done so for European consumers. According to this detailed report, “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks” published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, many multi-national corporations do not use these toxic dyes in Europe but still use them in America:

“CSPI has urged several major multinational companies that do not use dyes in Europe to do the same in the United States. Unfortunately, most of those companies said that they don’t use dyes in Europe because government has urged them not to—but that they would continue to use dyes in the United States until they were ordered not to or consumers demanded such foods.”

All parents care deeply about their children and their children’s health. We all want what’s best for our kids. Is it ignorance or laziness or a desire to please or a feeling of wanting to be part of what everyone else is doing or a belief in advertising? What is it that leads parents to buy gummy sharks for the school snack?


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28 thoughts on “These Are Not Food, They’re Pretty Poisons”

  1. I don’t know the answer to your question but I’m very glad you are asking it. We need to think about these things, since the FDA is not doing it for us. When I moved to France in 1970, I missed being able to buy food dyes to put in my kids’ homemade play dough. I was ignorant back then. My kids ate relatively healthy food in Europe, although there must have been dye in candy, which I did not buy, but which my son purchased with his allowance at the local patisserie. Today the European Union is way ahead of America in the regulation of toxic chemicals. I believe we all need to speak out and spread the word on this issue. Some people simply do not know. A movement has begun against environmental toxins, and it is exhilarating, don’t you think?

  2. The more good folks like you write about these issues and spread the word, the more the issue of ignorance will drop. It’s amazing to me that large companies intentionally create harmful products when they actually already have an alternative. That’s more disturbing than anything.

  3. It frustrates me to see food dyes being used in this country to an extent that they aren’t in other countries. I was noticing that the other day it was impossible for me to find a children’s toothpaste in a regular drugstore that didn’t contain artificial dyes, either.

    Dye-free alternatives to many foods exist – but not everyone can afford them.

  4. Fantastic article and it seems absurd that gov’ts aren’t doing more about this. This all filters into the health care system in one way or another. Having all these items lining our shelves and ads targeted at our kids…why? why? why?

  5. Pretty poisons – so true. That’s a great description. What’s wrong with a juicy orange or a crisp apple? You wonder if kids are losing their taste for natural foods.

  6. The FDA is finally starting to acknowledge that food dyes can have negative affects on children. I’ve also started to conclude that food dyes might be one of the sources of Hayden’s joint pain. Terrible terrible.

    At my summer camp we sent out a list of suggested snacks/lunch ideas to send with kids that worked for our Kosher Style vegetarian camp. You could do something similar for the class. Put clip art on it to make it happy and fun so parents don’t take it the wrong way. I’ll look for the file and try send it your way to save you some work.

  7. In a perfect world the government would protect our health and eliminate all harmful substances from foods. But what a complicated web that is. I hate to throw up my hands in defeat, but in the interim, we must, as consumers, be well-informed on dangers in foods. Knowledge IS power, albeit not an overriding government power. The more we know, the more we will be able to make wise choices. It is so very scary to think about all the foods out there that are harming all of us.

  8. When I go to England, I notice many bright colored “fruit” candies. so this isn’t just a US issue. What are they dyes? I don’t know. Let’s be honest here, you want the government to tell parents what to and not to feed their kids? It’s the consumers, the “bad” parents who are buying all these “pretty poisons” and as long as people are buying them, they will continue to be sold. If you don’t like the candies, then don’t buy them. Occasional eating of them will not do any great harm.

  9. The problem is educating the public. As long as fruit gummies are tasty and cheap, kids will want them and parents will buy them.

    It’s the same with skin care, which is actually worse than ingesting these things, the FDA does nothing about all the toxins put in our personal care products and that stuff absorbs directly into our skin and into our blood, including our children!

    Ridiculous.

  10. I think many of these parents are simply naive; they refuse — or don’t want — to believe grocery stores are crammed with “food” that’s completely unhealthy. And that “food” is usually at eye level, attractively packaged, easy to serve.

  11. I think the reason your parents fed you the pretty poisonous food is that they must not have understood the dangers.I’m still just absorbing it. The thing is, your readers already know this (It’s good to reinforce it, though). It’s important to get the information out to to the more mainstream audience of parents. Jennifer, you have to sell another article, now.

  12. I think the reason your parents fed you the pretty poisonous food is that they must not have understood the dangers.I’m still just absorbing it. The thing is, your readers already know this (It’s good to reinforce it, though). It’s important to get the information out to to the more mainstream audience of parents. Jennifer, you have to sell another article, now.

  13. I agree with Debra. I don’t know what food colorings are. I didn’t know they were petroleum based or linked to cancer. I wouldn’t have thought twice about buying a big box of fruit snacks for my child and her friends. They are loved by kids, inexpensive and pretty portable. Why wouldn’t I if I didn’t know?

  14. When I think about these types of things, I think about the evolution of my own knowledge about birth. I somehow knew that an OB and an elective c-section weren’t right for me with my first child, but I didn’t realize how those other interventions could get my labor off-track. By the time Kid #2 came around, I was well educated and had a lovely homebirth, if I do say so myself. However, it took YEARS of individual, personally driven “homework” to learn what I needed to know and prepare myself for this outside-of-the-mainstream event.

    Our diets, in my opinion, are similar. While we may all strive to live the well-examined life, it’s easy to get caught up in any habit, eating habits included. Add the normal high level of stress that so many of us live with, and food sometimes falls a little lower on the totem pole of importance than we’d like it to. I think a lot of people don’t realize the full impact of our eating habits – I know I am still struggling to find the right foods at the right prices and the right stores to buy them at that my family will actually eat. That’s 4 variables, and that’s just the beginning. I think that essentially, the barrier to better eating habits is that there’s a huge body of knowledge to absorb, and it takes concentrated effort to integrate it into daily living.

  15. Ah, our beloved FDA. Decades late in realizing what many parents have already figured out. . . (Thanks for this, Jennifer!)

  16. How about those Easter egg dye kits? I asked in our local drug store the other day,”Are any of these non-toxic?” And the two employees both shrugged, looked at the three or four different packages with me and said,”none of them clearly state their non-toxic, but they’re made for children…” if only! “no, thanks!”

  17. We need to stop counting on the FDA to do anything and the consumer needs to get rid of the garbage by refusing to purchase the stuff — we don’t need more government regulation and interference, we need an educated public who can then choose to eat whatever they want.

  18. LOVE your post! I love it!!!!!!!!!! I was saying this in my head, as I read each of the other comments. Yours is the best!!!

  19. HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW THAT A COLOR FOLLOWED BY A # SOMETHING ISN’T FOOD THAT SHOULD GO INTO OUR BEAUTIFUL BODIES? OR OTHER SUCH POISONS LIKE MSG, HFCS, UNRECOGNISABLE LISTS GOING ON INTO INFINITY FOR SOMETHING AS SIMPLE AS BREAKFAST CEREAL. IF IT’S NOT FOOD…DON’T BUY IT. I HAVE A VERY MEAGER INCOME, BUT I BUY ORGANIC “EXPENSIVE” FOOD BECAUSE I REFUSE TO PUT ANYTHING LESS INTO MY BODY, AND CERTAINLY NOT MY BABY’S!!!! IF I CAN DO IT ANYONE CAN! SERIOUSLY. I MAKE $800 – $1000 PER MO., PAY MY RENT AND BILLS AND GAS AND FOOD AND I AM A SINGLE MOM THAT STAYS HOME AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE WITH MY CHILD. WE LIVE A FULL, RICH LIFE AND NEVER WANT FOR ANYTHING…TO BADLY.

    LOOK AT LABELS! IF YOU DON’T RECOGNIZE SOMETHING IT’S NOT FOOD. GET FAMILIAR WITH SCIENTIFIC NAMES FOR EVERYDAY SAFE PRODUCTS LIKE SODIUM BICARBONATE, FOR INSTANCE.

    LOOK AT PANCAKE SYRUP. THE ONLY THING I RECOGNIZED IN THE INGREDIENTS WAS HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP AND NAMES OF COLORS IN THE DYE. THERE WERE AT LEAST 20 INGREDIENTS ON THE LABLE OF THIS GARBAGE AT MY SON’S GRANDPARENTS HOUSE….”GOT ANY HONEY” WHAT’S IN IT?

    INGREDIENT: HONEY.

  20. I heard about this on NPR too. From what I read there some of the studies linking food dyes to hyperactivity are still inconclusive–http://www.npr.org/2011/03/30/134962888/fda-probes-link-between-food-dyes-kids-behavior.

    It seems like the key is to get your kids hooked on fresh fruits and vegetables instead of banning certain foods altogether (which makes them even more appealing for some). My 7 y-o is currently hooked on blueberries that’s not to say her diet is perfect, but small changes can add up.

  21. Why did our parents feed the stuff to us? They _didn’t_ know. How were they gonna find out? The government said the stuff was safe. There was no internet for doing one’s own research. There were a few books, but not many, and you had to know they existed in order to buy them or get them through interlibrary loan (and, at 38, I’m old enough to remember before interlibrary loan existed). My Mom was a rare one–she actually did refuse to give us Kool-Aid, and she would very seldom buy pre-sweetened cereals. We couldn’t afford much in the way of fancy snack foods. And high-fructose corn syrup wasn’t in much of anything back in the ’80’s.

  22. In NYC (where I live) they provide breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack, I believe based upon the poverty rate of the student population of each school–and apparently we’re pretty far ahead of the curve wrt nutrition (or at least trying to be) because it’s all reasonably healthy on paper. I still give him breakfast before school & send him with his own lunch & snack, mostly because he’s such a ginormous pain in the butt about what he’ll eat. Plus I’d be embarrassed as a food writer to *not* send him with food…

    In his classroom, at least, we’re not allowed to send in cookies or other junk on a regular basis–it’s reserved for birthdays, etc. Of course then there’s no limit on what’s sent or guidelines about ingredients, etc, but I can live with that.

    @kara, some parents see a very clear difference in their children’s behavior after eating artificial dyes. This isn’t exactly news. So yes, beet juice in a bunch of sugar and gelatin *is* actually healthier for those kids. My own kid seems perfectly fine after eating dyes (and I use them myself on his birthday cake), but I don’t see anything wrong with saying that if something is dangerous for a substantial portion of the population, perhaps we should examine/consider banning it. Or at least not marketing it directly to the very people who are threatened by it.

  23. My daughter doesn’t have a serious reaction to food dyes, but I can still tell when she’s had some. There’s a slight ramp-up, the fidgets, distractedness. I think most kids react that way, actually, on some level, whether parents realize that’s why it’s happening or not. It’s not sugar that makes kids hyper at birthday parties — it’s chemical food additives like dyes and preservatives. Like Debbie said, this isn’t new. What is new is that mainstream science and media are starting to pay attention.

    Certainly concerned parents can provide alternative snacks and treats at school — we’ve been doing it since our daughter was in preschool. We’ve also educated our daughter so she’s less likely to take chemical-filled treats if offered.

    But why does another parent’s “right” to provide crappy treats trump the rights of other parents to have their kids avoid crappy treats? If a parent wants to feed her child blue cupcakes or red gummy things, OK. It’s her right to feed that to *her* kid. But it’s not her right to feed that to *my* kid.

    As for why parents would choose those kinds of snacks at all, well, there’s a huge education gap about what’s in our food. Yes, more people need to educate themselves and start reading ingredients. Absolutely that’s true. But we also need a government that looks out for our best interests. I find it pretty funny when people say that government should stay out of our food, because government already regulates the hell out of our food — but in a way that benefits corporations, not consumers.

  24. I appreciate Jennifer’s article and the good intention behind.

    She is questioning from the parent point of view. As a parent myself many times I am frustrated at what is going on at school. It seams at times that when my child is crossing the threshold to her classroom there is no one else keeping an ‘eye’ for her physical well being. Sometimes is a lack of organization of the school or class teacher as they are overwhelmed with other issues.

    Than what the children eat at school it does not seam to matter.

    My child came home yesterday chewing bubble gum a friend have given to her…these days our children should not have to get a treat from another child as allergic reactions can be triggered and one day it would be too late for that child. If I was a parent at her school I would advocate to change the protocol of foods into the classroom. If it does not came from the farm..DO NOT FEED IT TO THE CHILDREN.

    We are Lucky of a pioneering program call ‘Farm to School’ hopefully it would make a difference.

    http://www.facebook.com/update_security_info.php?wizard=1#!/rvfarm2school

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