Many chemical food additives have been removed or banned from products in Europe because of health concerns, but remain in popular American products, according to the findings of an ABC11 I-Team investigation.
Food dyes are among the synthetic food additives that have been removed from many food products in Europe but remain in American products. They include yellow food dyes 5 and 6 and red dye 40.
The Carlson family, in Johnston County, is frustrated that red dye 40 remains in the U.S. food supply. They say their 10-year-old son Garrett has extreme sensitivity to red food dye and it triggers rageful behavior.
A negative reaction
"I used to describe it as a Jekyll and Hyde, because you have this excellent kid, and then he would talk to you like dirt," said Brandy Carlson, Garrett's mother.
Brandy says the first sign of trouble came when Garrett was 18-months-old and ate a hot dog.
"He was mad at the world, and it would last an hour, go away come back," said Carlson.
6 years of doctors
She says it took six years of doctors visits to finally unlock the mystery of Garrett's tantrums. Carlson says it takes just two M&M's to trigger the behavior.
"There is no benefit to the dye and there's no telling how many kids are out there, and adults out there, that are suffering in this way and they don't even know why," said Carlson.
Garrett says he can feel it happening in his body. Food with red dye makes him lose control.
"It's been pretty hard over the past few years," said Garrett. "I just feel really bad after and I'll say like 'I'm sorry' 50 times."
Other children experience it, too
The Carlson's experience is no surprise to Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy organization in Washington. The former UNC-Chapel Hill researcher says her organization has heard from 2,000 families whose children have experienced a reaction to red dye 40.
"It's just so unnecessary it really does make me angry," said Lefferts. "There's just no reason why children should have to suffer these kinds of adverse reactions. Why families should have to spend years trying to track down the culprit for their child's problems when we could just simply not be using these chemicals in our food."
Food dyes that can be a trigger have mostly disappeared from the food supply in Europe because after conducting scientific studies, regulators ordered food makers to put warning labels on products containing certain dyes. Many food companies decided instead to remove the synthetic dyes, reformulating recipes in Europe, but continuing to sell the old versions here.
"It's really unconscionable that companies are still using these chemicals in foods sold here," said Lefferts.
Products changed in Europe
Lefferts pointed to specific examples of products that have been changed in Europe, but not in the U.S.
"Beverages like Mountain Dew, or Sunny D, candy like Skittles, Starburst, M&Ms, Betty Crocker cream cheese frosting or buttercream frosting, or red velvet cake mix," said Lefferts. "Betty doesn't seem to have gotten the memo about synthetic food dyes."
In response, General Mills, the maker of Betty Crocker said, "It is common for food products' recipes to vary by country to account for local taste and regulatory differences. Food safety is our top priority and we adhere to the strict guidelines set by the FDA for food colorings used in our products."
Mars, the manufacturer of Skittles, Starburst, M&Ms says it is in the process of removing food dyes from American products. The company says it will take about five years.
"We've committed to removing artificial colors," Mars said in a statement. "We already offer a range of products that are free of artificial colors around the world. And all of the ingredients we use in our products comply with our own strict internal quality and safety requirements, as well as all applicable laws and regulations."
Mountain Dew and Sunny D did not respond to our request for comment.
Lefferts warns that red and yellow food dye also appear in food you would not expect.
"They're not only used in colorful foods like candy or brightly colored breakfast cereals, they also kind of sneak into foods you would never imagine, like pickles or salad dressing," said Lefferts. "Even white foods, brown food, and foods that you just wouldn't think of as containing synthetic dyes."
Lefferts also highlights other food additives that are used in American products but banned in Europe. She points to Brominated Vegetable Oil, used to prevent separation, in Mountain Dew and some sports drinks.
Lefferts also says two additives in many American baked goods, potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide, are banned in Europe because of cancer concerns.
"You can find lots of bread without it, so clearly it's not necessary," said Lefferts. "But some companies like to add it to bread to change the texture of the bread."
The FDA's response
Lefferts and her organization believe the FDA needs to follow the lead of European regulators when it comes to food additives.
"I don't understand why FDA doesn't act on this evidence," said Lefferts. "It needs to be acting more like the cop on the beat."
ABC11 contacted the FDA for a response to Lefferts' concerns, but we have not received comment.
The FDA website says, "The FDA has reviewed and will continue to examine the effects of color additives on children's behavior. The totality of scientific evidence indicates that most children have no adverse effects when consuming foods containing color additives, but some evidence suggests that certain children may be sensitive to them."