Acknowledgment that food dyes (and other ingredients) cause behavioural problems in some children has spurred certain companies to remove dyes from some of their foods. However, until a new study by Purdue University scientists, the amount of dye in packaged food has been kept a secret. Published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, the research reports on the dye content of scores of breakfast cereals, candies, baked goods and other foods.

According to the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest, the findings are disturbing, since the amounts of dye found in even single servings of numerous foods — or combinations of several dyed foods –are higher than the levels demonstrated in some clinical trials to impair some children’s behaviour.

Unprecedented test results now published

Clinical trials have shown that a modest percentage of children are affected by doses of up to 35mg of mixtures of synthetic colouring, with larger percentages generally being affected by doses of 100mg or more. It is unknown what amount of dye triggers reactions in the most sensitive children.

General Mills’ Trix cereal lists Yellow 6, Blue 1 and Red 40 on its ingredients list. It is now known that Trix has 36.4 milligrams of those chemicals. Fruity Cheerios had 31 mg of food dyes. Of all the cereals tested, the one with the most artificial dyes was Cap’n Crunch’s Oops! All Berries, with 41 mg.

Target Mini Green Cupcakes, which have Yellow 5, Blue 1, Yellow 6, and Red 40, had 55.3 mg of artificial dyes per serving, the highest level found in any food. Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are the three most widely used dyes in the United States.

Mars, Inc’s Skittles and M&M’s, which are dyed with Blue 1, Blue 2, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Red 40, had the highest levels found in candies. Skittles Original had 33.3 mg per serving; M&M’s Milk Chocolate had 29.5 mg per serving.

Kraft Macaroni & Cheese was found to have 17.6 mg of artificial dyes per serving. Keebler Cheese & Peanut Butter Crackers had 14.4 mg of artificial dyes, and Kraft’s Creamy French salad dressing had 5 mg.

In beverages, the researchers found high levels of dyes in 8-ounce servings of some, including 18.8 mg in Full Throttle Red Berry energy drink, 22.1 mg in Powerade Orange Sports Drink, 33.6 mg in Crush Orange, 41.5 mg in Sunny D Orange Strawberry, and 52.3 mg per serving in Kool-Aid Burst Cherry. The beverage data were published in Clinical Pediatrics last September.

Scientists urge the prompt removal of dye

According to the Purdue researchers, the amount of artificial food dye certified for use by the Food and Drug Administration has increased five-fold per capita, between 1950 and 2012 — meaning a child could easily consume 100mg of dye in a day and that some children could consume more than 200mg per day.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, many studies were conducted giving children a 26mg of a mixture of dyes,” said Laura Stevens, research associate in the Nutrition Science Department at Purdue and lead author of the study. “Only a few children seemed to react to the dye, so many doctors concluded that a dye-free diet was pointless. 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.”

Though the FDA has neither banned dyes nor required front-of-package disclosures of dyed foods, the European Union requires warning labels on most dyed foods, which has almost eliminated the use of food dyes in Europe.