Food Dyes: Why People Want Them Despite Potential Health Risks

What, exactly, does familiarity breed? Apparently glow-in-the-dark food is one possibility.

That, in essence, is the message in a recent New York Times article by Gardiner Harris ("Colorless Food? We blanch." 4/2/11) summarizing research and perspectives on the topic of artificial colorings and food dyes.

Mr. Harris points out that in the absence of FD&C Yellow No. 6, Cheetos would display the pallor, and apparently the appeal, of insect larvae. Studies have shown that foods lacking the expected color are rated lower on taste, even though taste is actually unchanged!

Pickles are bright green courtesy of food dyes; they would otherwise be grey. Jell-O, we're told, would be tan.

All of this sounds unappealing, and research confirms that's just how people respond. But then again, cauliflower is pale and it's not a problem. Steel cut oats are both pale, and somewhat grey, and taste just fine. Wheat toast (or for that matter, any toast) is tan, and no one objects.

The issue, then, seems not to be preference for a given color -- but preference for the expected color. Green pickles are good, but not because green is good -- but because it's expected. Green eggs, with or without ham, are not so good -- or at least take some getting used to! We prefer the familiar color.

We all know, of course, what the idiom tells us: familiarity breeds contempt. If we reflect on some things (or people) we should cherish every day, but tend to take somewhat for granted, we may be inclined to agree. But even the wisest and most time-honored of aphorisms are not unfailingly true.

In fact, they can't be, because they are up against equally wise and time-honored aphorisms saying just the opposite! At times, "fools rush in where angels fear to tread," but at other times, "he who hesitates, is lost."

So, in fact, familiarity does not reliably breed contempt, and can at times breed the very opposite -- preference. This is clearly the case with regard to food.

Studies over an extended span indicate the powerful role of familiarity in food preference. Babies prefer the taste of foods to which they are first exposed through their mother's milk. Most of us grow up with fond memories of the foods that nourished us through childhood.

Cultural variation is a pretty clear indication of the role of familiarity as well. We can all think of 'exotic' foods we have seen in movies, or on some reality show, that make us squeamish -- but that are just another snack for those who eat them routinely. Inuit babies may eat whale; Mexican babies may eat habaneros. In fact, the preference for spicy food is about familiarity that extends from culture, to physiology. The particular nerve cells that register spiciness, called Substance P cells, habituate through exposure -- so the spicier your diet is, the spicier you can stand it, and tend to prefer it.

The persistent, if unresolved, notion that some components of diet -- sugar/sweet in particular, but possibly salt/salty, and maybe fat/creamy -- can be addictive is a clear indication of the power of the familiar. You cannot be addicted to something you have never experienced. And even the most irrefutably addictive of substances -- tobacco, cocaine -- takes repetitive use before it owns you. The more you get, the more you need.

Regardless of how sugar, salt, and fat ultimately compare to decisively addictive substances, they clearly share the "more you get, the more you want" experience with them. Research in both people and animals shows that exposure to high levels of sugar, salt and fat propagate preference. The converse is true as well; when groups habituate to lower-fat, salt, or sugar foods, they can actually develop aversion to the high-fat, salt, sugar foods they once preferred.

And so, while high sugar and salt content can be blamed on the prevailing palate, the question arises: what made that palate prevail in the first place? In essence, supply and demand have created a kind of arms war, with the obvious loser being the public health.

A tendency to like sugar and salt results in more sugar and salt in processed foods. These higher levels become familiar, and thus cultivate a preference for higher levels still. The food industry accommodates, and the dangerous game is afoot.

Much the same, it seems, is true of food dyes -- which the FDA recently decided do not clearly contribute to behavioral disorders in children. But let's recall that absence of definitive evidence is not evidence of absence, and the authorities are recommending more study of a possible link.

We know from both research and personal experience that taste buds are malleable little fellas; they tend to learn to love the food they're with. Eyeballs seem to share the tendency. Have you ever met someone, gotten to know them, liked them more and more, and then realized they seemed far more attractive to you than when you first laid eyes on them? I think we come to see the beauty that is more than skin deep. It works with people -- why not pickles?

While there is a word for disliking what (or whom) we don't know -- xenophobia -- there is, to my knowledge, no such word for liking what we don't know, because it doesn't happen! Familiarity's offspring may well include contempt, or at least complacency -- but they decisively also include affinity, and preference.

So don't let the foods that could be friendliest to your health and vitality remain strangers to your diet. All that stands between you and them may be want of ... familiarity.


Dr. David L. Katz;