Renee Shutters is a mom with a mission. She has teamed with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI) on a change.org petition to M&M’s maker Mars, Inc., requesting the company remove artificial dye from the iconic candy. She noticed her 9-year-old son’s hyperactive behavior improved after she eliminated foods containing artificial dyes from his diet. Now, she wants Mars to use natural dyes in M&M’s.
It seems like a bit of a bold request—until the candy maker’s European formula is revealed. On the other side of the pond, Mars nixes the petroleum-based dyes it uses in the U.S. and replaces them with natural dyes. Otherwise, the European Union would require Mars to package Euro M&M’s with a label that warns the candy “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”
Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH, pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, thinks the petition may be on the right track. Available evidence suggests that artificial dyes carry the potential to increase hyperactivity in any child, says Bernstein.
But the focus on food coloring masks a far bigger problem, says Bernstein. “Kids (and their parents) are being bombarded with foods specifically intended to lure them in.” Nearly every store in the U.S. immerses consumers in a sea of cheap, unhealthy and supersized junk food, he continues. Candy marketing follows a seasonal cycle from Valentine’s Day to Halloween.
Every fall, the trick-or-treat ritual generates a massive candy crush; Americans purchase 600 million pounds of candy for Halloween.
Tantrums, meltdowns and more
A review, published in Neurotherapeutics by researchers at the Ohio State University (OSU), concluded that artificial dyes are not a major cause of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but seem to affect children regardless of whether or not they have ADHD. Multiple studies published in the last 35 years have suggested similar effects.
The OSU researchers refer to a phenomenon familiar to most classroom teachers: a possible aggregate effect on classroom climate. In other words, stuff a group of kids with snacks loaded with artificial food dyes and let the mayhem begin.
Similar findings in other studies spurred the European Union to require the warning label on foods containing Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6—the very dyes used in M&M’s. Mars revised its European recipe. However, the U.S. formula contains five artificial dyes: Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6, and Blue 1 and 2.
At least some consumers want Mars to replicate the European recipe in the U.S.
The change.org petition had garnered more than 100,000 signatures on Oct. 31.
In the interim, Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of CPSI, cautioned households against passing out Halloween treats colored with artificial dyes in a recent Huffington Post blog. He warned of the temper tantrums and meltdowns that might result after children indulge in these candies.
Food dye-fueled fits are just part of the problem.
A typical 2 oz. candy bar contains nearly 200 calories, more than half of them from fat. “These are empty calories, devoid of any of the nutrition that kids’ bodies need to be healthy,” says Bernstein.
“The best advice I can give when it comes to having kids eat artificial food coloring or candy is as old as Aristotle: all things in moderation,” offers Bernstein. “Kids will always eat candy, but we can set limits on how much and what kind.”