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Artificial dyes must be banned from use in food because they are linked to serious behavioural and attention-deficit problems in children, according to a U.S.-based consumer advocacy group that has launched a campaign to eliminate several food additives.

Synthetic food dyes are used to enhance the colour of products and are ubiquitous in many packaged and processed foods in Canada, particularly in candy and sugary cereals geared toward children.

But there has been a battle brewing between the food industry and critics who say the synthetic colourings pose a health risk and should be phased out by the federal government.

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That debate has intensified in recent months after medical journal The Lancet published a study last fall that uncovered a link between additives and hyperactivity in children.

Researchers found children with no history of serious behavioural problems showed signs of hyperactivity after drinking fruit juice that contained various levels of additives over a period of several weeks.

Now, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a U.S.-based advocacy group that has a branch in Canada, is petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to phase out eight artificial food dyes it says pose a serious health risk to children.

"The purpose of these chemicals is often to mask the absence of real food, to increase the appeal of a low-nutrition product to children, or both," Michael Jacobson, the association's executive director, said in a statement.

Nearly all of the dyes singled out by the organization as dangerous are permitted for use in Canada. The food dyes are added to a wide range of products, including concentrated fruit juice, ketchup, cheddar cheese and liqueurs.

But Canadian consumers are at a disadvantage when it comes to knowing whether food contains potentially harmful dyes. That's because companies are not required to list which dyes they use in their products - they can simply say the product contains "colours."

"Any food company can add them [artificial dyes]if they want and essentially conceal the identity of that dye and Canadians suffer the consequences of it, particularly children," said Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator of the Canadian arm of the public interest group.

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The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said yesterday that while food companies are free to disclose which colours they use, they are not obligated to release those details to consumers.

But new evidence, including The Lancet study, has prompted Health Canada to review its regulations for food additives. The department "has begun work to change labelling requirements to require that any food colours are declared in the ingredient list by [their]specific common name," spokesman Paul Duchesne said in an e-mail.

However, the association says that simply listing the artificial food dyes isn't enough. Synthetic colourings should be eliminated from food products because growing evidence suggests they may pose a health risk, the group said.

In addition, the dyes are a needless additive and many safe alternatives already exist, the public interest group

said.

"The continued use of these unnecessary artificial dyes at a time of heightened concern about hyperactivity in children is the secret shame of the food industry and the regulators who watch over it," Mr. Jacobson said.

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The organization singled out eight widely used synthetic dyes as candidates for eliminating from food: yellow 5, or tartrazine; red 40, also known as allura red; blue 1, or brilliant blue; blue 2, or indigotine; green 3, or fast green; red 3, or erythrosine; yellow 6, or sunset yellow; and orange B.

All of the dyes, with the exception of orange B, are permitted for use in Canada. Many of the dyes are derived from coal tar and have been linked to health problems in past scientific studies.

Many popular snacks, including Smarties, Froot Loops, Cheetos, Doritos and Reese's Pieces, either list "colour" or "colours" in their ingredient lists, but don't disclose whether they use synthetic dyes or which ones they use. The list on a package of Skittles indicates the product's colours include tartrazine, which is derived from coal tar.

Food & Consumer Products of Canada, which represents many major food companies in Canada, declined to comment on the issue and referred questions to Health Canada. Calls to Nestlé Canada Inc. and Mars Inc., which owns the Skittles brand, were not returned yesterday.

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