Recently a panel of experts was convened by the FDA to re-examine whether artificial food coloring causes hyperactivity in children. They concluded that evidence did not show a link between the two, stating the following:

Based on our review of the data from published literature, FDA concludes that a causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established

Marion Nestle, a frequently quoted expert on food policy and Professor of Public Health and Sociology at NYU, wrote about the issue on her blog and at The Atlantic. It was unclear to me from what she wrote whether or not Dr. Nestle agreed with the panel’s decision to not ban these products, so I emailed her to see if she would answer a few questions for me, and she kindly complied. I think the exchange is illustrative of two very different ways of thinking about regulation, and what regulators should consider. Below is a lightly edited version of our email exchange:

AO: I’ve been reading what you’ve written on food coloring, it’s not clear to me whether you’d support a ban on food coloring or not. I was hoping you could tell me what your position on the policy is.

MN: Since they are unnecessary and deceptive, I can’t see any reason to do anything to protect their use.

AO: You say that food coloring is “unnecessary and deceptive “.  But couldn’t you say the same thing of essentially any garnish or cooking technique designed to make food appear more appealing without physically modifying the flavor?

MN: The issue is artificial.  Food garnishes and cooking techniques are usually not.

AO: You say that food additives aren’t “needed” but there are many ingredients and foods which aren’t “needed” given the variety of substitutes and choices we have. If you’re looking at how much a product is worth to consumers, and trying to understand how consumers will be harmed by banning it,  isn’t “valued” a more appropriate criteria than “needed”? Shouldn’t that be what regulators consider?

MN: Valued by whom?  Industry, certainly.  Food is fine as it is.  It doesn’t need artificial enhancements.  Foods that “need” artificial dyes are not really food.  They are “food-like objects.”

AO: You imply in your blog post that if this food coloring is banned, people will eat less of the unhealthy foods that use it. Why would people eat less of these foods when artificial coloring is taken out if they didn’t value that coloring? Doesn’t it have to be the case that they like it less, or that prices go up? And in either case don’t consumers have less of something they value?

MN: Surely, artificial food dyes can be replaced by something better.

AO: If a parent wants to know whether a food contains coloring, can they find out that information today?

MN: To some extent, but the labeling rules leave lots of room for loopholes.

AO: In your blog you also say that parents of hyperactive kids can easily do their own experiments. Are the available labels sufficient for this? Or are clearer labels needed?

MN: My advice to everyone (only slightly facetious) is not to buy foods from the center aisles of supermarkets, and to avoid buying anything with more than five ingredients, anything they can’t pronounce, anything artificial, and anything with a cartoon on the package.  That should take care of most problems.