If you've ever eaten candy from a European Union country, you might notice some unusual ingredients.
For instance, Nestlé's chocolate "Smarties" contain radish, lemon and red cabbage extracts for coloring, rather than yellow six or red 40. So why is that?
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a petition calling on the American-based candy manufacturer Mars, Inc., maker of M&M's chocolate candies, to stop using artificial dyes in their products. They've also petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to regulate food dyes more strictly.
The FDA released the following statement:
Currently, the FDA is gathering data on amounts of color additives used in food. These data will be used to estimate dietary exposure for the U.S. population and various population subgroups, including children.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, joins Here & Now's Sacha Pfeiffer to discuss the potential dangers of artificial dyes and the organization's initiative to remove them from American candies.
"It's crazy that American companies are marketing safer products in Europe than they're doing for their customers back home," Jacobson said.
Interview Highlights: Michael Jacobson
Why Europe made the switch
"There's been evidence for almost 40 years that food dyes trigger hyperactivity or inattention in children. About six years ago, the British government sponsored studies that found exactly that, so they urged food companies in Britain to replace synthetic dyes with natural colorings or no added colorings, and many British companies switched over. And then the European Union passed a law requiring that any food that contained the dyes used in those two British studies would have to put a warning notice on, warning consumers that the dyes might trigger hyperactivity. And so with the threat of a warning label, it's really hard to find these synthetic dyes."
On American companies that remove dyes overseas, but not at home
"We've gone to companies in the U.S. saying, 'Hey McDonald's, hey Mars, you're not using dyes in Europe, but you are using them in exactly the same products in the United States.' And a good example is, in Britain, McDonald's has a strawberry sundae, and the only red color comes from the strawberries. Here in the United States, the red color is jacked up with some red dye number 40. McDonald's doesn't have to use the dye, but companies like dyes: they're cheaper, they're brighter, they're more stable, and also because sometimes, the naturally colored products aren't as bright as the synthetically colored products, they're not as attractive to consumers. But, you know, it's the kind of thing that consumers simply would get used to very quickly."
On surprising uses of artificial dyes in some foods, and how to avoid them
"It's surprising how widely used dyes are. So, there will be yellow dyes in some brands of pickles. Salad dressings have dyes. Mayonnaise is sometimes artificially colored ... Remember, it's made with egg yolks, so there'll be a little tint of yellow in there ... they're simulating that there's more egg than is really the case.
"There's some cake mixes that have carrot bits, but they're not real carrot bits. It's hydrogenated oil, sugar, artificial coloring and flavor. You know, the food industry has all these tricks up their sleeve.
"You know, one solution is for people to read labels very carefully. The fronts of labels should indicate when they're artificially colored, and consumers can go for foods without any labels at all, like real food, real fruits and vegetables."
- Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The organization tweets @CSPI.
This segment aired on March 28, 2014.