Katherine Rich: True colours

In this age of instant social electronic media, many pitfalls abound for the unwary. A rushed, unconsidered response to something can result in a “tweet” or a Facebook post that can go viral within seconds, never to be pulled back.

On the other hand, these tools can be invaluable in enabling a vital or promotional message to be read by millions of people within seconds, staying in touch with friends, finding a project how-to, or doing research for an article. The noun “Google” is now also an adjective that forms part of our everyday life. And what a great tool it is. Search for anything and it will yield millions of results in less than a second, often before you type the last letter of the word.

But like many tools, it can produce wrong and misleading results if not used carefully.

This was brought home to FGC recently during research around food colours. Within seconds, our search filled the screen with a myriad of websites containing all manner of information. Some of the sites were random food websites purporting to be some sort of authority on the subject. Other “hits” produced erroneous blogs posted by people who thought they could contribute to the food debate by adding their opinions. And there was Wikipedia.

But we were shocked to find that most of the sites at the top of the list contained disturbingly false information. Some sites said many colours commonly used in foods produced in New Zealand caused anything from hives to kidney tumours, cancer and chromosomal damage. Some sites repeated false information that these colours were either banned in many countries or not approved in others because they were harmful.

On the issue of safe use of food colours, the big problem online is that by far the vast majority of these unofficial sites contain information which is plain wrong.

Here are several examples of what our initial search coughed up:

  • Sunset Yellow is responsible for hives, allergies, hyperactivity, distaste for food, kidney tumours, nausea, kidney tumours, and chromosomal damage, and is banned in several European countries.
  • Allura Red is linked to cancer in mice, and is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France and Switzerland.
  • Brilliant Blue FCF caused an allergic reaction in people with pre-existing moderate asthma, and is banned in many European countries.

Scary stuff – if it were true! A more careful search of official sources and databases on some 31 government and regulatory body websites around the world revealed quite a different story. These official sources negate or clarify every allegation above, note no safety concerns, and confirm widespread international moderate and safe use. All enough for anyone interested in food facts to see red! 

And the story was the same for any colour we could think of: plenty of scary stories on dubious websites and ill-informed blogs, but always an array of scientific studies from reputable sources proving the opposite.

Which goes to show why it’s so important to check official sources rather than believing the first thing you see, and to treat other sites with caution. Wikipedia, for example, is a good source of information for many things but on issues concerning health and food and safety it always pays to double-check because of numerous bogus sources.

All this matters because colour plays a big part in our lives, and it means a great deal to the food and grocery industry.

Food colours are used in moderation in New Zealand and for good reason. Colours can be added to foods to make up for colour losses following exposure to light, air, moisture and variations in temperature; to enhance naturally occurring colours; to add colour to foods that would otherwise be colourless; when a colour isn’t available in nature or because a natural colour won’t last very long on the shelf.

And then there is just to add a bit of fun and visual appeal in some products. Wouldn’t life be dull without colour? Take jelly as an example. For many children, a childhood memory is being served a plate of wonderfully vibrant and fun jelly. The experience wouldn’t be the same if it was a colourless, translucent blob of gel on a plate. Childhood memories are built on such things.

A lot of the criticism around the use of added colours is designed to create the idea that the New Zealand-Australia regulation system does not have an excellent food regulatory work – that somehow our system is out of step with the rest of the world and that New Zealanders are at risk of serious harm.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Trans-Tasman food regulation is overseen by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), a bi-national government agency which prides itself for its extremely robust and evidence-based approach as it develops and administers requirements for foods such as additives, food safety, labelling, and GM foods. FSANZ decisions continue to err on the conservative side.  That is worth remembering when allegations arise that New Zealand is not careful enough when it comes to adding colours to our food.