Today’s post is by Mary Weng, a current senior at Yale University who is majoring in Psychology and is also an MPH candidate in the division of Health Policy and Management at the Yale School of Public Health. She has an interest in early childhood development, particularly in childhood nutrition and in exploring the related issues of child-directed marketing and the politics of food. She believes that the removal of artificial food dyes may be a small, but concrete and significant step in making necessary changes in the food industry. Today, she explores the necessity for Kraft to remove Yellow Dye #5 & #6 in its Mac & Cheese.
Kraft Foods has recently posted a “Letter to Fans” on their website, in response to a petition started by two mothers in North Carolina who were asking the company to remove harmful artificial food dyes, particularly Yellow #5 and #6 dyes, from its signature Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. The petition now has almost 280,000 signatures, and this movement has received widespread attention from the national media.
Yellow #5 and #6 are the dyes used in Kraft Mac & Cheese, and controlled studies in Australia, the US, and the UK have shown that these dyes increase hyperactivity in children. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), these dyes have also been shown to cause cancer in rats. This information comes as no surprise after learning that these dyes are manufactured from toxic petroleum chemicals. Most notably, these dyes do nothing to increase nutrition or taste in food, and the aesthetic effect can be achieved using natural colorings. The use of artificial dyes is completely unnecessary.
What was Kraft’s response to the outcry over the use of dyes? Put simply: if you don’t like the products with artificial dyes, then don’t eat them. They have “generously” offered 14 varieties “for those looking for Mac & Cheese with natural colors or no colors at all,” including Kraft Mac & Cheese Organic Cheddar, and Kraft Mac & Cheese Homestyle Creamy Parmesan Alfredo. Their suggestion oversimplifies the issue. First, given what we know about the dyes, would we expect anyone to be actively looking for Mac & Cheese with artificial colors? Clearly, hundreds of thousands of consumers are dissatisfied. And unfortunately, the varieties without artificial coloring are less popular and not found in every store. Meanwhile, Kraft continues to offer more than 30 other varieties that do contain artificial colors, including Kraft Mac & Cheese Cheddar Explosion and Kraft Mac & Cheese Spongebob Shapes. These are the varieties that are catered to appeal to kids in particular, marketed such that kids will reach for them on the shelves.
Kraft’s solution is inadequate. All 14 varieties without artificial colorings have names that sound like something “grown-ups” would eat. Words like “organic” or “homestyle” might as well be the same as “healthy” or “boring” in a child’s mind. Why can’t the default option for kids be better and safer without having to label it “the healthy option”? Kraft is perfectly capable of doing so: since 2009, the deadline set by the UK Food Standard Agency (FSA) for voluntary removal of the artificial coloring, all UK versions of Kraft Mac & Cheese use only natural colorings.
The US food regulation system has not called for the same changes. In the letter, Kraft held that it looks to regulators for guidance, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that the colorings are safe for use in food. But what they did not say is that the FDA laws and regulations are full of loopholes. According to Paul Roberts in his book The End of Food, additives (including Yellow #5 and #6) that were considered safe by the FDA or USDA before the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, amended in 1958, are exempt from regulation. These dyes are labeled as safe based upon data that is more than a half-century old; since the 1950’s, our average exposure to artificial food dyes has increased five-fold. It is time for the FDA to update its knowledge and recommendations, and time for Kraft to stop turning a blind eye to the safety of its consumers.
No one is claiming that the removal of artificial dyes will fix the problem of hyperactivity in children. And it certainly will not shift the increasing trend of unhealthy diets in kids. Yes, the original purpose of food dye was to make foods more attractive and mask the absence of nutritional content, and its removal will not solve that problem. However, as the FSA in the UK states, removing the artificial dyes results in at least one risk that a child may avoid.
As Michael Moss says in the epilogue of his book Salt Sugar Fat, “We are hooked on inexpensive food.” This all-too-familiar fast-paced lifestyle means that we won’t stop eating processed food anytime soon. These products come at an attractive price, are easy to prepare, and usually succeed in pleasing our picky eaters. Many families depend on Kraft, with its power lineup of 55 brands that can easily supply an entire day’s worth of food.
Kraft, please make the safety of your beloved fans a priority, and give these families one less thing to worry about. You have been able to keep the same great look and taste in the UK Mac & Cheese using natural colors; please allow us the same privilege in the US. Moms and Dads, you ultimately have the choice in deciding what to buy. You can choose to avoid artificial dyes, but it’s time to demand some more profound changes for the well-being of our children.