If you tear open a packet of M&M's, what's the first thing you notice?
The colors: bright blue, vibrant orange, bold yellow. Kids love this visual stimulation.
But the sponsors of a new petition on Change.org — which is urging M&M-maker Mars to replace the artificial colorings used to create these distinctive hues — say these dyes can make some kids hyperactive.
"In this petition, I'm asking Mars to change to natural colorings," mom Renee Shutters told me by phone. "It's very doable."
Shutters, who lives in Jamestown, N.Y., is mother of 9-year-old Trenton. And she says his behavior improved dramatically after she removed artificial dyes from his diet several years back.
"I went through all our cupboards and I couldn't believe how much of the stuff had dyes in it," Shutters told us. The chicken tenders in her freezer had dyes, as did the yogurts — even "the macaroni and cheese I was giving [my kids] had it."
Shutters says Mars has already replaced many of the dyes in the candies it sells in Europe and the U.K. with natural colorings made from vegetables and other plant sources.
"So it is [achievable]," says Shutters, "but they just haven't done it here for our kids."
In Europe, natural dyes outstripped their synthetic counterparts for the first time this year, says food scientist Kantha Shelke of Corvus-Blue in Chicago.
But in the U.S., Shelke says, "the adoption of natural colors is are significantly behind." One reason is that natural colors tend not to be as brilliant nor as stable as artificial dyes.
Cost is also a factor: Natural colorings are more expensive, says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is cosponsoring the petition. Jacobson says colorings derived from beet juice or carrot juice are going to cost manufacturers more than the mass-produced, petroleum-based food dyes used by many U.S. food-makers today.
Now, there's no consensus among scientists that synthetic food dyes are a major contributor to behavioral problems such as hyperactivity.
Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, says that parents are free to see if eliminating avoiding artificial dyes from their kids' diets improves their behavior.
"On the one hand," says Adesman, "I think there's a growing body of research that shows that artificial food colorings can affect a child's behavior. On the other hand, these effects are relatively modest."
And he adds that there's no research to suggest that artificial dyes pose any serious long-term safety or health risks.
Mars sent us a statement that says, "we are aware of the petition." The company said that while all the colors used in its products comply with strict internal quality and safety requirements, "we are constantly evaluating and updating ingredients based on consumer preference, new technology and scientific information."
One clue that Mars may soon swap out one artificial dye for a plant-based alternative here in the U.S.? CSPI's Jacobson says the company recently won FDA approval to use a spirulina extract.
This algae-derived, natural compound could be used to color its M&M's blue.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The candy giant Mars is being urged in a new petition to get rid of the artificial dyes that give its famous M&M's their bright colors. As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, the petition was started by a mother who believes that the food coloring was making her son hyperactive.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: So if you tear open a pack of M&M's, as I did in the NPR cafeteria this afternoon, what's the first thing you notice about them?
MARCUS CRENSHAW: I notice that they are very colorful, blue, orange, yellow.
AUBREY: That's Marcus Crenshaw(ph) who happened to be standing at the vending machine.
Hard to ignore that bright blue, huh?
CRENSHAW: Oh, yeah, it sticks out at you.
AUBREY: Now, there's no scientific consensus that these artificial food colorings can change kids' behavior, but this hasn't stopped a mom in Jamestown, N.Y. who's asking Mars to get rid of these artificial dyes.
RENE SHUTTERS: In this petition, I'm asking Mars to change to natural colors. It's very doable.
AUBREY: That's Rene Shutters, mom of 9-year-old Trenton. She says her son's behavior improved significantly when she removed artificial dyes from his diet a few years back.
SHUTTERS: And I went through all our cupboards and I couldn't believe how much of the stuff had dyes in it. My chicken tenders I was buying had it, the yogurts I was giving him had it, the macaroni and cheese I was giving him had it.
AUBREY: There were also cereals and all kinds of snack foods. So why is Shutters targeting Mars rather than all food makers? Well, for starters, M&M's are a top selling candy and they're made with several artificial dyes and also, Shutter says, Mars has already replaced many of the dyes in their candy it sold in Europe with natural colorings made from vegetable and other plant sources.
SHUTTERS: So it is accomplishable, they just haven't done it here for our kids.
AUBREY: The consumer watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest is a co-sponsor of the petition and the organization's Michael Jacobson has been pressuring food makers and government regulators to phase out artificial dyes for years.
He points to small studies that suggest that these dyes may change the behavior of kids who are sensitive to them, making them hyperactive. But, he says, companies have been slow to respond.
MICHAEL JACOBSON: Companies don't want to switch from synthetic dyes to natural colorings because natural colorings are more expensive and they're not as stable.
AUBREY: Now, there's no scientific evidence that food dyes are a major contributor to things like hyperactivity and ADHD, but pediatrician Andre Adesman, who specializes in developmental and behavior issues, says what parents should know is that if they have children who seem to be sensitive to dyes, stay away from them, but be assured there's no evidence that they dyes pose a long term risk.
ANDREW ADESMAN: On the one hand, I think there's a growing body of research that shows that artificial food colorings can affect a child's behavior. On the other hand, these effects are relatively modest and I don't think that there's any research to suggest that these pose a long term serious issue in terms of a child's health or safety.
AUBREY: Candy maker Mars told us in a statement that they are aware of the petition. and that they're constantly evaluating and updating ingredients based on consumer preference and scientific information. One clue that they may make a change in their candies sold here in the U.S. soon is that the company recently won approval to use a spirulina extract derived from algae, to color its candy blue.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.