Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Artificial food colorings considered harmful

In Food Rules, Michael Pollan prescribes "Don't eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk." Quite some time ago our pediatrician suggested that artificial food colorings should be avoided, as they may be linked to behavioral problems. Now it looks like the FDA is getting in on the act and considering warning labels for foods containing artificial dyes (via That's Fit).

While I don't agree with everything Pollan has to say about how we ought to eat, Food Rules is definitely worth reading. And one of the things Pollan and I do agree on is that we should be very cautious about ingesting things which are food-like but not really food, i.e. things which our great-grandmothers would not recognize by name as something edible.

During a recent trip to Costco, I made an interesting observation: the heat-and-serve frozen food aisles were so crowded, they were nearly unnavigable. But the aisles of raw cooking ingredients were almost empty. Whether or not it's accurate, this has become my mental model for the way I think about how most people eat: they would prefer to consume manufactured food-like items than to spend the time creating meals containing known-good ingredients. Seeing all sorts of health problems proliferate in our society, I gain more and more appreciation another of Pollan's rules: eat whatever you want, as long as you make it yourself.

Even when we feel motivated to do it, it's difficult to hold ourselves and our families to these standards. Good meals take a lot of time to prepare, and time is a scarce and precious resource. Eliminating dyes from our diet while allowing my kids to eat things they enjoy is not easy. Nor is it easy to always be aware of what is in the convenience foods that we buy.

So while I still believe people should be allowed to make their own decisions about how and what they eat, I'm in favor of more prominent labeling for things like artificial food colorings. As a parent, I'm trying to strike a balance and make informed decisions. It seems worthwhile to make the information I need to arrive at a decision easy to identify while trying to rush through a chaotic grocery store before the kids' (and my) patience runs out.


  1. I find that I can only really shop "on the edges". Many grocery stores have the 'real' food on the outside walls (produce, meat, etc.) and the aisles in the center are filled with all of the processed food. It sucks because you often have to walk through those aisles to get what you want and it is a bit depressing to realize that you can't eat 80% of what is in grocery store. Then again, Sturgeon's law; 80% of everything is crap, hopefully I'm eating the remaining 20%.

  2. That brings up another point which has struck me as odd. How is it that we've arrived at a point where the the most common forms of foods are the furthest from natural? As you say, it is necessary to skirt the largely-undesirable 80% of the grocery store to get to foods that are pretty much in their natural forms. And within the aisles of processed foods, only a small portion of what's available can be guaranteed not to contain non-food chemicals.

    I guess the obvious answers are a) processed foods are seen as being more convenient for consumers; and b) manufactured chemicals are cheaper than real food ingredients. But it's somewhat boggling that the food industry can put just about anything out there and say, "Hey, this is edible. Eat it," and people are generally willing to go along with it.