By Sally Kuzemchak
February 25, 2015
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Can you guess which M&Ms have natural food colors?

One of America's iconic candy bars is getting a dramatic makeover, and it's attracting a lot of attention. The Butterfinger is being reformulated and losing its artificial flavor plus the synthetic food dyes that gave its crunchy filling its signature hue. Nestle made the announcement last week, promising to rid its entire line of chocolate candies (more than 250 products) of artificial flavors and synthetic food dyes like Yellow 5 and Red 40 by the end of the year—and vowing that any newly-launched candies, including non-chocolate treats like gummies, will be free of them too.

The reason for the switch? Consumer demand. Food companies want to keep pace with what consumers want—and consumers want fewer food additives, especially synthetic food dyes.

Myself included. Like a lot of people, I've made an effort to shop simpler in the last several years, looking for shorter ingredient lists and fewer additives. I started noticing that artificial dyes were in some crazy places, like brown cereal and vanilla cake frosting and white marshmallows. Even pickles typically have synthetic food dyes added to them!

Then I spent months researching the topic of synthetic food dyes for Parents (read: The Food Dye Blues). I spoke with scientists, pediatricians, members of the food industry, and parents. I learned that there's a growing body of evidence that these dyes may have negative effects on some children's behavior, including inattention and hyperactivity. I talked to parents who saw a big change in their children's behavior after removing dyes completely (and some parents who didn't see a difference). I also learned that synthetic food dyes do nothing for our foods and drinks except add color--and that natural colors (such as beet juice) can mimc the same shades. In fact, natural colors are successfully used overseas in some products that are still colored with synthetic dyes here in the U.S. (The M&Ms made with mostly natural colors, the kind sold in Europe, are on the right in the photo.)

The European Union actually requires products that use synthetic dyes to carry a warning label about the possible adverse effects on children's behavior. We don't have the same rules here because the FDA says there's enough evidence to support it. But moves like Nestle's send a pretty clear message: Consumers want more products without dyes, and companies are ready to deliver.

Yoplait already swapped out dyes from their kids' yogurts for natural colors. Kraft did the same for some of their macaroni-n-cheese products. Other companies and brands can't be far behind. And that trend can only mean good things, namely fewer unncessary additives in the food supply. If synthetic food dyes do in fact negatively impact some children, phasing them out could help a whole lot of kids.

So should you go out of your way to avoid food dyes? To me, if a food ingredient isn't necessary, if there's a possibility it could have a negative impact on my kids, and if there are easy alternatives available, it makes sense to skip it. So I don't buy products that contain them. But I also don't stress about a blue-dyed cupcake at a friend's birthday or some orange punch at a picnic (though if I thought my kids were dye-sensitive, I would!). A lot of brightly-dyed foods are nutritional lightweights anyway (think fruit punch, sugary cereal, and day-glo snack chips) so eating fewer artificially-colorful foods usually means eating less junk overall anyway.

I've love to hear from you. Do YOU avoid synthetic food dyes?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.