Artificial food colors (AFCs) are commonly found in beverages, cereals, puddings, ice creams, popsicles, cakes, candies, pasta mixes, and other foods marketed to children (as well as in plenty of “adult” foods). And there may be more of them in certain foods these days than ever before, according to a study in Clinical Pediatrics, which analyzed a large number of products with AFCs listed on their labels.
It found that the amount of AFCs in the cereals and candies tested was higher than those reported by the Certified Color Industry back in 1968. Manufacturers tend to use more food colors in new products, while some foods developed decades ago, like Trix cereal (introduced in 1955), have gotten a “more colorful look” over the years. Foods high in AFCs were also typically high in sugar. In fact, very few foods tested could be described as healthy or nutritious, the researchers noted.
Though the relationship between AFCs and behavior problems in children is debatable, it’s not hard for a child to exceed 100 milligrams of AFCs a day, according to the paper—an amount found in some (but not all) studies to provoke reactions.
If you want to avoid artificial colors, read the ingredients on all packaged foods. AFCs are listed as names of colors followed by a number, such as Red 40, Yellow 5, and Blue 1. They are present in some unexpected places, including pickles and even some brown foods (like cereals) and white foods like marshmallows (to make them look whiter); they’re also found in some toothpastes, mouthwashes, and over-the-counter drugs.
An increasing number of companies, including Kraft and General Mills, are pledging to remove artificial colors from at least some of their foods over the next few years; Mars plans to take them out of all its foods made for human consumption. That's a silver lining, but keep in mind that foods that contain lots of artificial colors are typically not the most nutritious ones to begin with, and replacing them with "natural" colors does not turn a junk food into a health food.
Also see Food Coloring Goes Natural.