Kathlyne Ross was in for a fright.
Her daughter went out trick-or-treating for Halloween last month. What was lurking in the treats she brought home gave Ross pause.
“I’m shocked,” the vice-president of product development at Loblaw said. “It’s amazing how all the stuff she collected had some artificial colour or flavour in it.”
Artificial colouring has become an increasingly common ingredient in everyday food items.
A recent Purdue University study, which looked at dyes in foods and beverages commonly consumed by children, found that before a kid walks out the front door in the morning, he or she might have consumed enough food colouring to trigger hyperactivity or ADHD symptoms.
According to the study, clinical trials have determined as little as 35 milligrams of artificial food colouring is enough to trigger behavioural changes.
“We found that an average child could easily consume 100–200 mg in a day,” said Laura Stevens, the lead researcher of the Purdue University study.
It’s not just an issue of quantity, Toronto nutritionist Lisa Tsakos said.
“We eat artificial colour here and there, but it accumulates in your body and it takes your body time to detoxify it,” she said.
Two of the biggest food colouring culprits in the study, Allura Red and Tartrazine, were also the most common artificial food dyes in Canada and have been associated with asthma, skin reactions and even cancer, said Tsakos.
“The interesting thing is that American companies that sell products in Europe use natural colours there but they still use artificial colours in the United States and in Canada,” she said. “Mainly because they’re worried it’s going to affect the taste or the appearance and that they’re going to lose sales as a result.”
Mounting public concern has spurred several major companies to remove dyes from some of their foods. Kraft has removed the artificial yellow dye from some of its signature mac and cheese products, and General Mills has removed dyes from Trix and Yoplait Go-Gurt.
Joining the move away from artificial dyes is Loblaw, which announced in late October it’s removed all artificial colours and flavours from more than 4,000 President’s Choice brand products.
“What’s driven us is knowing that our consumers want to know what’s in their food,” Ross said. “They’re reading ingredient decks and nutrition panels.”
But the transition from artificial dyes has its challenges, she said.
“When you use a natural derivative, sometimes colour fades over shelf life or they don’t have the same vibrancy you once had with the artificial colour,” Ross said.
One product that proved particularly tricky was the company’s red velvet cheesecake.
“When we started working on it, it kept turning out pink,” Ross said. “At one point, we even had a debate over whether the customer would accept a pink velvet cheesecake.”
The company eventually found the right balance of natural colouring from beets and purple carrots to replace the artificial red dye. In other products, purple beets are used for bluish colours, carrots are used for orange colours, and chlorophyll and spirulina are used as substitutes for green colouring.
Ross and her team may have eliminated artificial colours and flavours from PC products but she now has a different problem to contend with: her daughter’s Halloween candy.
“It’s going to be tough now encouraging her not to eat all this stuff.”