The use of synthetic dyes in food production is cause for concern for students and consumers due to the harmful effects dyes have on the body over an extended period of time, so I didn’t eat artificial dyes for a month.
Natural dyes have been replaced by synthetic dyes in food production practices over the past decades because synthetic dyes are more affordable and easier to use. This is problematic because synthetic dyes have carcinogenic properties.
Studies have linked dyes to asthma, behavioural issues and cancer. Research found that yellow no. 5 tested positive for genotoxicity — meaning it has destructive effects on a cell’s DNA. This means that dyes have high carcinogenic properties, so only concentrations of 0.005 to 0.05 per cent are permitted in foods.
However, since carcinogenic effects are cumulative and synthetic dyes are added to numerous foods, ranging from baby food to vitamin supplements, extended exposure can cause harm to the body regardless.
This April, I did not consume any food or drink with synthetic dyes. The purpose of this experiment was to challenge myself to be more aware of what I consume and to create a dialogue about food. The project raised two questions for me: First, how will my diet change by erasing synthetic colourants from the picture? And second, do consumers get a say over what is in their food?
From my findings, while heavily processed foods including pre-made meals, fast food and vibrant junk food contain artificial dye, so do frozen fish, Shake ’n Bake, cereals and jams. Even baked goods from the Safeway bakery contain yellow no. 5 and yellow no. 6. Certain brand names, such as Kraft, consistently use artificial colourants.
I could not get fast food, eat candy or some chocolates, or consume certain alcoholic drinks. I couldn’t settle for some of my quick, go-to packaged meals. However, the challenge did push me to spend more time and effort on what I eat.
Preparing nutritious meals is a struggle for university students because healthy alternatives are costly and home-cooked meals can take a significant amount of time to prepare. Many students don’t have the time or resources to avoid food colouring, let alone do home cooking, even if they want to. Therefore, access to nutritious food is not always a tangible option for many students.
My findings from this project not only raised my awareness of the dyes in food but also the variety of food items that contain other additives, such as BHT and palm oil. I have documented my month of no dyes on Instagram @cultivatedconsumer.
While my diet did not change drastically, I found out that some of the products I eat regularly do contain artificial colouring. The project was not very difficult — there are far more unavoidable ingredients in food production, such as palm oil or modified milk ingredients, but I chose artificial colouring because I wanted to start somewhere.
Since the effects of the carcinogenic properties in synthetic dyes are cumulative, removing dyes from my diet for a month will not prevent the long-term effects of dyes on my body. To prevent the effects, the project would have to last a lifetime. But even so, it may be too late, as I have been exposed to food dyes since childhood.
There is no nutritional value to adding synthetic dyes to food. It is a marketing tool to produce visually pleasing products to entice consumers, and corporations are not going to change the process of food production without any push from consumers.
In discussions with peers about food, the phrase “everything gives you cancer” has arisen on multiple occasions, and I fear the complacency and acceptance attached to it. For me, this project raised a question that perhaps speaks to a larger issue of passive, mindless food consumption in North America — have we stopped caring?
Photo: J.C. Balicanta Narag / Outreach Director