The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had asked researchers to follow up on a 2002 study in mice that was not conducted according to OECD guidelines, which suggested several food additives may cause DNA damage in the gut. These latest studies, conducted by scientists at the International Association of Color Manufacturers — which followed the guidelines — mimicked the conditions and quantities of the original study and found no such damage.
In a separate study, researchers also assessed how much of these ingredients manufacturers are currently using in products, and then estimated intakes among U.S. consumers. They found consumption for all groups of the population was at levels considered to be safe.
The European Food Safety Authority makes periodic requests to reassess the safety of food additives to ensure evidence is up to date and to guarantee that current consumption patterns and industrial use is taken into account. This recent research is a part of ongoing safety checks on additives the organization has already deemed safe — in agreement with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and JECFA, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives.
Apart from Tartrazine and Allura Red 4C, the researchers also found no safety issues with Ponceau 4R, which is used in Europe but is not permitted for use in the United States.
The three food colors were included in the Southampton Six study, which linked six artificial food colors and a preservative, sodium benzoate, to hyperactivity in children in 2007. It sent shockwaves through the industry, and gave the natural colors industry a major boost. However, EFSA and other international experts found the study to be deeply flawed. EFSA found no reason to revise its opinion on the safety of the colors.
Still, European lawmakers took a precautionary approach and mandated a warning label. The FDA did not take a similar action despite pressure from the Center for Science in the Public Interest to ban the colors, or to at least add warning labels.
Of the three other Southampton Six colorings not included in this latest safety assessment, two are not used in the United States, although they are permitted for use in the EU. The other, Sunset Yellow, is labeled as FD&C Yellow 6 when used in foods. No toxicity has been found for the amounts at which it is used. In fact, the European Food Safety Authority has even increased the acceptable daily intake for the coloring.
Whatever the studies say, the food and beverage industry has already made great strides in reformulating with natural colors, particularly in products consumed by children. The market has been growing at about 10 to 15% per year, according to a report from UBIC Consulting.
Despite a large body of research confirming the safety of artificial colorings, consumers still want their food to be as natural as possible. When the Southampton study came out, many consumers were appalled to discover that manufacturers were using artificial colors even when natural alternatives were available to them.
Given the choice, most consumers will choose natural products over artificial, although if the difference is not highlighted, many will still gravitate toward more boldly colored items — something manufacturers should keep in mind. More food manufacturers are removing artificial colors and flavors from their products.
A 2014 study by Nielsen revealed more than 60 percent of U.S. consumers cited a lack of artificial colors and flavors as an important factor when making food purchases at the store. General Mills has removed artificial flavors and colors from some of its cereals and Campbell Soup has committed to remove artificial colors and flavors from its North American products by the end of 2018. Many more food manufacturers have announced similar efforts.