Processed foods such as Skittles, Starbursts, Nutri-Grain Bars, and Lunchables might look the same in an American grocery store as they do in a British one, but they’re not the same. The American versions contain the artificial food dyes that we’ve unfortunately become used to seeing on ingredient lists, while the U.K. versions, made by the exact same companies, have replaced those risky food dyes with natural additives, such as beetroot powder, annatto, and paprika extract. Red No. 40, Yellow No. 6, and Blue No. 1 no longer have a place in many processed foods sold in the U.K., but they continue having a heyday over here in North America.
How is such a double standard maintained? It stems from a study that took place in 2007 called the Southampton Study, which was funded by the federal food safety agency in the U.K. Its results indicated a link between hyperactivity in children and certain food additives. In response, the U.K. branches of Kraft, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Mars, as well as U.S. companies that export to the U.K., removed these harmful ingredients from their foods without making the changes back here in North America. Then the U.K.’s Wal-Mart equivalent, Asda, voluntarily removed monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, and hydrogenated fat from 9000 of its own label products, ingredients that weren’t even part of the study. This shows an eagerness on the companies’ parts to clean up their acts for U.K. consumers, yet they haven’t done the same for Americans.
A different kind of relationship exists between these food companies and their consumers in the U.K. than in the U.S. I disagree with one person’s suggestion that the companies care less about the lives of American kids than they do about British kids when doing their cost-benefit analyses. After all, if the companies truly cared about kids’ health, they wouldn’t be making the products they do. The double standard is more indicative of where a nation’s priorities lie and the fact that money always talks. The U.K., which subsidizes health care, is more invested in preserving the health of its citizens. That’s why its federal food safety agency would fund something like the Southampton study. In the U.S, where there is profit to be made off sick Americans and the government doesn’t foot hefty medical bills, there is less incentive to take care of citizens by ensuring the removal of artificial dyes.
It’s no wonder that American parents are up in arms about the “rainbow of risks,” as the Center for Science in the Public Interest calls these food dyes. It would be nice to know that processed snacks are free from additives, for those rare occasions when my kids eat them at someone else’s house. But I can’t help thinking that the debate about who’s to blame for the double standard is pointless because it sidesteps the bigger problem – that kids shouldn’t be eating processed foods in the first place. It doesn’t matter what companies put in foods if parents choose not to buy them. No quantity of ‘natural additives’ is going to turn them into a healthy snack.
The food companies won’t change unless forced to. The U.S. government isn’t in a hurry to make it happen, so it’s up to American consumers to demand the changes they want to see. A widespread boycott of all foods containing dyes could probably do a lot to catch the companies’ attention and make them reconsider their production methods.