Why Did We Forget About Artificial Colors?

The Lempert Report
June 11, 2021

Just a few years ago, just about every consumer, especially moms, were actively complaining and avoiding food and beverage products that contained artificial colors.

A multitude of studies hit the front pages suggesting that artificial food colors could be linked to hyperactivity, ADHD, irritability, depression, hives, asthma and even some cancers in children. Back in 1975 the book Why Your Child is Hyperactive asserted that an elevated sensitivity to food additives underlies the signs of hyperactivity in some children. Then renewed interest came in 2007 with a large study of behaviors in 300 children - 3 year olds and 8-9 year olds which actually led the FDA to review the evidence and hold public hearings.

In 2008 Michael Jacobsen and the Center for Science in the Public Interest became involved and filed a petition calling for a ban on food colors once again making headlines the way that no one except Jacobsen could do. A hearing was held in March of 2011 and the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee concluded that the evidence was inconclusive to link food colors to hyperactivity or recommend warning labels be put on food packages. Many researchers and scientists as well as public interest groups continue to question the process and decision by the FDA and continue to offer more proof that the issue should require further study. Some large food companies took a stand. In June 2015, General Mills had pledged to remove artificial colors and flavors from all of its cereals, including its very colorful Trix cereal and Lucky Charms; the company issued a statement that it was hoping that 90% of its cereals would be free of artificial ingredients by the end of 2016. Kellogg’s followed suit and said the company was working toward the goal of removing all artificial colors and flavors from its cereals and other products by 2019. In March of 2016, Mars, Incorporated said that within five years, it would remove artificial colors from its entire portfolio of food for people.

"Eliminating all artificial colors from our human food portfolio is a massive undertaking, and one that will take time and hard work to accomplish," President and CEO Grant F. Reid said in the press release accompanying the announcement. "Our consumers are the boss and we hear them. If it's the right thing to do for them, it's the right thing to do for Mars." So where are we today? None of these promises became a reality. Food Dive wanted to find out why and reached out to these companies who told them that there are still artificial colors in a percentage of their products. Kellogg is the closest to meeting its commitment, with 90% of its cereals using only natural colors. More than 85% of General Mills’ cereals use natural colors and flavors. And Mars has removed artificial colors from all of its dinnertime foods but is not prioritizing moving to natural colors for its candies sold in North America. Food Dive writes that General Mills made high-profile efforts to switch to natural colors that did not go well. In early 2016, the company changed packaging on Trix, Reese’s Puffs, Cocoa Puffs, Golden Grahams, Fruity Cheerios, Frosted Cheerios and Chocolate Cheerios to highlight that there were no longer artificial colors or flavors. At first, consumers responded positively to the change. Then-CEO Ken Powell said in an March 2016 earnings call that these seven cereal brands had seen a 6% sales bump since the reformulations, up from a 6% decrease the year before.

But things did not stay so positive. In 2017, after hearing consumer complaints and seeing sales declines, General Mills brought back Trix with artificial colors. These companies said that in consumer tests, shoppers did not like the product as it changed with natural colors so they put on the brakes. Another reality is that natural colors may be more expensive, or may not perform as well in production or stay the same color hue over time. But the times may be changing with new research being funded by a bill from a California legislator, State Senator Bob Wiecowski who is pushing hard for a bill that requires a label that tells consumers that synthetic dyes can cause behavior problems or hyperactivity in children. It did not pass when he introduced it – but he has not given up and the bill will be up for consideration again in 2022.