Food Blogger Vani Hari and advocates from Change.org came to Illinois this week to demand that Kraft rid its products of questionable food coloring additives. Progress Illinois followed the group as they did a taste test in downtown Chicago and traveled to the company's Northfield headquarters to make their voices heard.
It was a cold welcome to the Windy City for native North Carolinian Vani Hari, as she stood on the corner of Ohio and State Streets Monday morning offering passersby free samples of a familiar product, albeit with a slightly different look.
“We’re offering samples of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese the way they serve it in the U.K. [United Kingdom] without artificial dyes,” Hari said, as she presented a tray to a man. “I’d love to see if you like it as much as the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese here in the U.S.”
Hari, a nutrition enthusiast and creator of the food blog, “Food Babe”, visited downtown Chicago to offer pedestrians the chance to sample both the American and British versions of the popular pasta dish to see whether they could tell a difference in the way they taste.
“Everyone said there was no difference [in taste],” Hari said. “Some actually thought it [the UK version] tasted better.”
But a taste test was only the first stop for Hari, who came to the area with representatives from the Change.org to visit Kraft corporate headquarters in suburban Northfield to deliver the more than 278,000 names that have signed on in support of a petition she and fellow blogger Lisa Leake began on the petition web site last month.
The two are calling on the company to end its use of artificial food colors in all U.S. versions of its popular pasta dish. Because synthetic dyes approved for use in the U.S. are made from petroleum-based materials, Hari said Kraft’s use of artificial coloring in its food products puts the health of consumers at risk.
“I’m not sure why Kraft is trying to convince us that pumping our children with petroleum is what Americans want,” Hani said. “We are not asking Kraft to change the color; we want them to give us the same natural and safe ingredients they use to color their product in the U.K.”
The petition focuses on Kraft’s use of two artificial dyes, known as Yellow #5 and Yellow #6, which gives the brand’s “Macaroni & Cheese Dinner” that familiar bright yellow hue. By contrast, the British version of Kraft’s "Macaroni & Cheese Dinner" (Cheesy Pasta", which does not have the artificial dyes, has more of a beige color when viewed side-by-side with its American counterpart.
According to Certified Nutritionist Mira Calton, the sight of bold, bright colors has been pervasive in food sold in the U.S. for so long that it has helped to shape our perception about how food actually tastes.
“People eat with their eyes as much as they eat with their mouths,” said Calton, who along with her husband Dr. Jayson Calton authored the book, Rich Food, Poor Food. “When food manufacturers left foods in their natural colors, individuals who tasted them said that they tasted bland and they ate less of them even though the recipes were exactly the same.”
In all, nine synthetic food dyes are currently approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, three of which, Yellow Number 5 and 6, as well as Red Number 40, are the most common and are used in a wide variety of foods, drugs and cosmetics.
Despite its use for years, or perhaps because of it, synthetic food coloring has been at the center of an ongoing debate over its safety.
Such concerns are not unwarranted. According to the F.D.A.’s own website, a number of the artificial colors in use today were first approved by the agency in 1931, when they were made from coal tar before switching to petroleum-based products in the 1950s.
In the early years, a number of artificial dyes were shown to be toxic, and in some cases were used to mask defective food. Some of the coloring additives were found at the time to have known carcinogens such as lead, arsenic and mercury.
Since the 1970s, concerns over synthetic dyes have centered on a potential link to children’s behavioral disorders. A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Southampton in England found that artificial colors could lead to increased levels of hyperactivity in children.
In reaction to the report, Britain’s Food Standards Agency in 2008 called for companies to voluntarily phase out adding Yellow 5, along with five other artificial dyes, to their products.
A review by the F.D.A however found no evidence that could conclude a causal relationship between the two, but their findings did acknowledge a possible effect on children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and other behavioral problems, stating such conditions “may be exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives”.
“That alone should be enough reason to get rid of dyes,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which in 2008 petitioned the F.D.A. to ban eight of the nine artificial colors used in foods.
The F.D.A. does require companies to label the artificial coloring used in their products due to concerns over possible allergic reactions. In 2011, a government advisory panel concluded there was no need for foods with synthetic color additives to carry a special warning, since they did not see enough evidence to support a significant risk to the general public.
When asked about the safety concerns regarding artificial food dyes, F.D.A. spokesman Jalil Isa responded by providing the following statement:
Consumers may be concerned about the safety of foods with coloring. They may hear long and unfamiliar chemical names, such as 'FD&C Yellow No. 5 – Tartrazine' and 'FD&C Yellow No. 6.' They may also hear alarming reports from the media suggesting that their children are at risk. There are four important things consumers should know about food coloring in general: First, all food colors must be approved by FDA before going to market. Second FDA regulates food coloring to ensure they are safe for human consumption. Third, this regulation ensures that most food containing a certified color additive, such as Yellow No. 5, be listed by name on the product label. And four, because products must contain this labeling, consumers can choose to avoid food products with these color additives if they have any concerns.
According to Kraft Foods corporate spokeswoman Lynne Galia, the company already offers 14 varieties of its Macaroni & Cheese in the U.S. that have no artificial colors.
Regarding any health concerns, Galia echoed Isa in the defense of the use of synthetic color additives, stating:
The artificial colors allowed in foods in the U.S., including the Yellow #5 and #6 used in some KRAFT Mac & Cheese varieties, are some of the most well-studied ingredients. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed them safe for use in food. Other experts, including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), have reached a similar conclusion. Scientific consensus on safety is very important when we look at what ingredients to use.
Indeed, artificial dyes such as Red Number 40 as well as Yellow Number 5 and 6 are allowed for use in Europe, according to the European Food Safety Authority. Companies however are required to label products that include the additives with a warning that reads, “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”.
Because of these types of requirements, according to Jacobson, companies for the most part have chosen to leave out synthetic dyes when selling their food products within the European market. Jacobson believes the same would happen in the U.S. if companies were required to place the similar types of warnings on their products.
“I think most companies would not use dyes,” Jacobson said. “I think they would either switch to no dyes or natural colorings, especially for products consumed widely by kids.”
But as Illinois Institute of Technology Biology Prof. Robert Brackett pointed out, European regulations regarding food products has more to do with EFSA’s precautionary approach toward food safety, which at times, he said, can be based on more than just the scientific evidence.
“They have a policy that allows them to prohibit, at least temporarily, any product that they think might have an issue, or where they are not comfortable enough with the science that exists,” said Brackett, who serves as vice president and director for IIT’s Institute for Food Safety and Health. “They tend to use that [approach] a lot more, whereas the Food and Drug Administration in this country tends to be much more fact based.”
In the case of Kraft, Brackett said their choice to leave artificial dyes out of the food products they sell in Europe is a business decision to accommodate customers who have different ideas on how food looks. He said it should by no means be seen as a question of whether or not artificial food colors are safe to consume.
“This whole issue as it relates to hyperactivity in children has been an issue for at least 40 years,” Brackett said. “But study after study after study will look at this and then come to the conclusion that there’s no conclusion – that there’s no evidence that it does it.”
Debate aside, Hari said she will continue her efforts to persuade Kraft to remove the dyes from all of its mac and cheese products. After delivering the petition, Hari got to meet with Kraft representatives. But she says the reps told her Kraft has no plans to remove the coloring from their products at this time.
“They said we have to agree to disagree,” Hari said. “I told them we deserve the same safe product that they have in other countries.”
Here is more from Hari as she conducts her taste test, as well as her comments from outside of Kraft headquarters: