Sweet but toxic | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

We were recently invited to a party that had enticing desserts which obviously used all sorts of food coloring. Even for adults, artificial coloring makes food appealing—much more so for children.

Sweets like ice candy and gulaman seem more delectable and mouthwatering when they come in bright red, orange and green. Cooked shrimps look more fresh and appetizing with a reddish food coloring.

Beware, though. Some industrial dyes used for food coloring can be toxic to the body. Some of these may contain coloring dyes used in shoe or floor polish. In small quantities, they may not cause harm, but, with chronic intake, they can cause diseases like cancer.

I recall, a few years ago, the Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested random samples of food products collected by inspectors in the National Capital Region and Cebu for potentially toxic dyes called nonpermissible colorants (NPCs). The samples were collected from ambulant vendors, public markets, groceries and supermarkets.

The findings of that study were that most of the samples were unregistered and noncompliant with food product labeling standards. Out of around 34 products collected, three tested positive for NPC rhodamine B, while another five needed further confirmatory tests for the presence of sudan dye, another NPC.

Because it is bright and fluorescent, rhodamine B is actually used as a tracer substance in water and airflow studies, and in molecular and cell biology experiments. It is also used in some instruments like fluorescence microscopy. In animal studies, it has been shown to be carcinogenic or cancer-causing.

Poisonous metals

Industrial-grade sudan dye is likewise not permitted for use in food because it is toxic and carcinogenic. It also contains poisonous metals like mercury and arsenic.

Sudan dyes enhance the colors of shoe and floor polish, solvents, oils, waxes and gasoline. But only food manufacturers with no conscience can also mix it with food products.

It’s like killing oneself softly, if one takes food products containing these toxic dyes. Of course, one does not develop the cancer or its other serious complications immediately because the amount of the poisonous dye is not high enough to cause acute symptoms.

But slowly, over a period of time, and with repeated intake of the harmful dyes, a predisposed individual could be at risk for cancer and other health problems. And the poor victim would never suspect that the food coloring had something to do with it.

It’s really an insidious and menacing problem. I hope the FDA is now regularly monitoring the potentially toxic dyes sold especially by street hawkers. This may be quite a challenge if the agency is still hampered by the lack of laboratory support as it used to be, particularly in provincial areas.

The public should be advised to buy only processed food products from legitimate food establishments and outlets. If they suspect that NPCs have been used in some food products, they should report them to the FDA immediately.

It’s also advisable to read labels. If any of the NPCs is mentioned, it’s better not to buy that food product.

I suggest that even restaurants should also be issued a warning against serving any food preparation with any of these toxic dyes. It just occurred to me that the bright color of chili powder seems to be too good for it to be its natural color.

Other spices and condiments might also have been adulterated with NPCs.

And how about the sweets we eat, such as candies, cakes and ice cream? I hope not. That would be devastating for my sweet tooth.

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