Almost 40 years ago, artificial food dyes had their moment in the sun.
In 1969, Soviet scientists announced that Red Dye #2 caused cancer in rats. Seven years later, the Food and Drug Administration agreed, and banned the ubiquitous coloring from U.S. food - creating a cultural icon for a generation that used "Red Dye #2" as shorthand for anything toxic.
Now, synthetic dyes are getting a second run. New research indicates the chemicals can disrupt some children's behavior, and activists and consumer groups are asking for bans or limits on the dyes. A prestigious British medical journal recommended that doctors use dye-free diets as a first-line treatment for some behavior disorders; British regulators are pressuring companies to stop using the dyes, and some are complying.
The issue has generated much less attention on this side of the Atlantic. The FDA says the dyes are safe, and has no plans to limit their use.
"At this point, there's no evidence of a connection between dyes and children's behavior," says FDA consumer safety officer Judith Kidwell. She points out that in 1982, a National Institutes of Health panel examined the safety of artificial dyes and found no evidence of risk.
That attitude frustrates activists. "They're at least 20 years behind the science," says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Last month, the group petitioned the FDA to ban use of the dyes, as well as sodium benzoate, a common preservative that critics also suspect of contributing to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
"At the very least, they ought to give some consideration to what the British government is doing," Jacobson said.