Artificial blue, green, orange, red and yellow food colorings show up in everything from Gatorade, Cheetos and Doritos to Eggo waffles and Jell-O desserts.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has long deemed the dyes safe but is reviewing recent studies of the colors' effects on children's behavior at the request of a consumer group. Input from a panel of outside advisers is part of that review, and the committee is expected to make recommendations soon.
FDA staff reviewers said in a preliminary report that scientific research so far suggested some children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be affected by food coloring. The disorder affects up to 5% of U.S. children, according to government statistics.
"Why accept any impairment of kids' behavior whatsoever? Hyperactivity isn't just running around. It affects their ability to have friends, to study, to have a happy family life. Why impair that?" said Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, leading opposition to the dyes.
The committee of outside experts could urge a ban or warning, or it could suggest more studies if the advisers judge current evidence inadequate.
In an interview before the panel meeting, Jacobson said he was not optimistic the FDA would ban the dyes. He said it would be easier for the agency to order a warning.
A ban or warning could impact major food manufacturers as well as color producers.
During the meeting, a few experts on the FDA panel questioned the evidence cited by the dyes' opponents. Dr. Charles Voorhees noted most research tested a mixture of dyes rather than each color separately.
"Doesn't it strike you that we don't have enough information about the dyes individually?" asked Voorhees, a professor of pediatrics and environmental health at the University of Cincinnati.
Jacobson admitted shortcomings in the data but said there remained enough evidence to show the dyes were harmful.
He said it was unclear what percentage of kids were affected but argued the uncertainties should not stop the government from acting.
Concerns about food dyes erupted in the 1970s when a pediatrician, Dr. Ben Feingold, linked the colours to hyperactive behavior and proposed a diet eliminating them.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food producers and packagers, said in a statement "all of the major safety bodies globally have reviewed the available science and have determined that there is no demonstrable link between artificial colours and hyperactivity among children."
From the April 4, 2011, Prepared Foods E-dition