Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Color of Controversy

www.sciencenews.org - August 15th, 2011
When it comes to the safety of dyeing food, the one true shade is gray.

Artificial colorings have been around for decades, and for just about as long, people have questioned whether tinted food is a good idea. In the 1800s, when merchants colored their products with outright poisons, critics had a pretty good case. Today’s safety questions, though, aren’t nearly so black and white — and neither are the answers.

Take the conclusions reached by a recent government inquiry: Depending on your point of view, an official food advisory panel either affirmed that food dyes were safe, questioned whether they were safe enough or offered a conclusion that somehow merged the two. It was a glass of cherry Kool-Aid half full or half empty.

About the only thing all sides agree on is that there would be no discussion if shoppers didn’t feast with their eyes. Left alone, margarine would be colorless, cola wouldn’t be dark, peas and pickles might not be so vibrantly green, and kids cereals would rarely end up with the neon hues of candy. But as the 1990s flop of Crystal Pepsi showed, consumers expect their food to look a certain way.

Some of the earliest attempts to dye food used substances such as chalk or copper — or lead, once a favorite for candy — that turned out to be clearly harmful. Most of the added colors in use today were originally extracted from coal tar but now are mostly derived from petroleum.

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