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Making Blue Skittles Is about to Get Way More Complicated

Time to start hoarding your favorite vibrant green M&Ms and blue raspberry Skittles: Mars Inc., the company behind many popular candies, chewing gum flavors, and food products, announced earlier this month that it will begin phasing out artificial food dyes.

The decision came as a response to growing customer demand, said Mars, Inc. president and CEO Grant F. Reid in a statement, estimating that it will take five years to phase out all artificial colors. Nestlé, General Mills, Kraft, and Kellogg's have also started eliminating artificial dyes from their products in response to demand for more natural ingredients.

You've probably already eaten something colored by an artificial dye today: Red 40 (the most common food dye) gives hue to your gummy daily vitamin and that bowl of instant strawberries-and-cream oatmeal, while Yellow 5 brightens your sandwich-side of pickle spears or 2 p.m. chocolate-caramel and pretzel fiber bar. The per capita production of artificial coloring approved for use in food increased more than five-fold since the mid-1950's. According to a study of supermarket labels by the Center for Science in Public Interest, an estimated 90 percent of child-oriented candies, fruit-snacks, drink mixes, and powders now contain artificial colors.

While kids may treasure such colorful treats, many of their parents are concerned about what the colors might do to developing brains. Several studies have scrutinized dyes' possible link to increased ADHD, or examined their effects on children's behavior. When a study by a group of British scientists suggested a link between the consumption of certain food dyes and hyperactivity in kids, Europe and the UK began requiring food with artificial dyes to carry warning labels. But the US Food and Drug Administration holds that there is still no causal relationship between color additives and hyperactivity in children, and doesn't require warning labels. Mars, Inc. maintains that the colors don't cause any known health risks.

The FDA does suggest maximum daily intakes of certain dyes. For children, they range from 75 mg of Red 3—used in oral medications, sausage casings and candies—to 360 mg of Blue 1, used in baked goods, cereals, dessert powders, and beverages. With a highly processed diet, the dyes can add up quickly: Laura J. Stevens and colleagues at Purdue University found that a simple breakfast of Apple Jacks and strawberry milk has 12 milligrams of dye, a pack of peanut butter crackers has 15, and a dinner of Hamburger Helper and salad with pre-made dressing along with Kool-Aid to wash it down has 52 milligrams, making a daily total of 93 milligrams of different artificial food dyes.

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