Ask a Dietitian: Understanding Color Additives, Fortified Foods, and the Benefits of Bison

by Nate Widom

If you’ve got a question, chances are someone else is wondering, too. I asked one of our staff dietitians, Ashley Boyer, a few nutrition questions. Here are her responses:

Should I stay away from synthetic color additives in food?

If you’re ever in an American supermarket, you’ve seen products with color additives or dyes that make particular food look sourced from a rainbow. “Basically, the objective is to add color to food that would otherwise not have it to compensate,” Ashley explains. Additives can be synthetic or derived from natural sources like plants, animals, and minerals. They are added to the food during processing and are often present in all kinds of products.

Specifically, synthetic kinds of dyes are increasingly questioned by the public. Currently, only nine are approved by the FDA, but questionable history and recent research on these dyes have raised the public alarm. Ashley mentions that for all the FDA-approved additives, plenty more have been removed from products or even banned in the US because they were found to be carcinogenic and toxic. And more and more Americans are consuming synthetic additives—especially children. Over the last 50 years, consumption increased by over 500 percent.1

Red No. 40 and Yellow No. 5 and No. 6 account for 90% of food dyes in the United States.1 Some color additives are banned in other countries while approved in the USA, and vice-versa. The color additives approved by the FDA for human food are the following:2

FD&C Blue No. 1
Orange B
FD&C Red No. 40
FD&C Blue No. 2
Citrus Red No. 2
FD&C Yellow No. 5
FD&C Green No. 3
FD&C Red No. 3
FD&C Yellow No. 6

More recently, evidence has emerged about adverse effects. Several studies since the 1970s have found a “small but significant association” between these synthetic dyes and child hyperactivity. Though the evidence is highly debated1, many countries have banned, restricted, or require warning labels on products with these additives. For example, the UK requires labeling any food with these synthetic color additives with a warning stating, “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”3

Even though they are federally approved, to Ashley, the history and effects of synthetic dyes make her question if they’re safe for long-term consumption. “We know there’s no benefit that we’re getting from color additives,” she describes. After all, these additives are only included in foods for aesthetic purposes.

Therefore, between natural and synthetic dyes, Ashley recommends going natural as often as possible. Natural additives include reds from beets, oranges from carrot extract, yellows from turmeric, and blues from blueberries.

According to the FDA, synthetic color additives undergo a batch certification to be approved. Here, the FDA examines a sample’s chemical composition from each color additive batch to ensure it meets standards. Natural color additives are not subject to this test. However, according to the FDA, they must still be examined and approved since they’re still color additives.4

Should you want to avoid these synthetic color additives, avoiding processed foods is suggested. “The more processed foods you eat, the more color additives you’ll get,” Ashley says. Any food products with synthetic color additives are processed no matter what.

“Color is only for the eyes and for show,” Ashley mentions. “And we have to think about children. Children are really consuming a lot of this stuff because they like those colors. I think it’s important we protect their health as much as possible.” Brightening your plate with healthy natural foods like fruits and vegetables is always suggested—and those won’t have additives.

Are fortified foods too good to be true?

Fortified foods are foods with added vitamins, minerals, and macros that were not natural in the food to begin with or may have been lost during processing. The original intention of fortification was to address common nutrient deficiencies. It started with adding iodine to salt in the 1920s, then expanded to other forms of food fortification in the 30s and 40s. “They started adding B vitamins to breads and vitamin D to milk to meet nutrient needs,” explains Ashley. Disease and vitamin deficiencies were abundant during this era, so fortification was needed.

“Now everything is fortified. Bread is fortified, protein bars—you have all these foods enriched and fortified with all these nutrients,” Ashley describes. The abundance of fortified foods also serves as a marketing tactic. I mean, if you see two similar loaves of bread, wouldn’t you want the one fortified with B vitamins?

“In a lot of cases, fortification is a really good thing because it can increase and fill in the gaps of nutrients that people aren’t getting,” Ashley informs. Seniors, children, and pregnant women are most at risk for vitamin deficiency, and fortified foods, when consumed responsibly, can significantly help these populations. Also, vegans can benefit from foods fortified with vitamin B12, which would otherwise be lacking in their diet.

On the other hand, Ashley warns people can receive too many vitamins and minerals as well. An Environmental Working Group study found that many fortified foods have levels of vitamins that aren’t appropriate for children. For example, children are at risk of excessive intake while eating many breakfast cereals. Some are frequently fortified with vitamin A, zinc, and niacin, but the recommended daily intake of these and other nutrients are calculated for adults, not children. Adolescents also eat numerous fortified foods throughout the day, sometimes significantly more than one serving, adding even more risk. Not only that, but these recommended values were set in 1968 and, according to the organization, are “woefully outdated.” Therefore, some fortified products contain considerably more levels of nutrients than what’s deemed safe by the Institute of Medicine.5

“These overdoses can be potentially dangerous, so we have to be mindful,” Ashley describes. “I think it’s important we look at a balance.” Ashley mentions that nearly half of children aged 2-8 get too much zinc, and 13% consume too much vitamin A.

The Environmental Working Group recommends that parents read nutrition labels and be wary about feeding children fortified products with over 20-25% daily values for vitamin A, zinc, or niacin. Typically, these foods alone won’t pose a risk for excessive consumption in kids, but when paired with multivitamins, these products can be problematic.5
According to Healthline, nutrients natural in foods are unlikely to cause harm. However, overdosing can lead to various issues and, on rare occasions, death.6

And then there’s the big elephant in the room. As stated, adding these vitamins to foods requires processing—and eating lots of heavily processed food isn’t recommended either. “Again, we have to go back to color additives, [fortified foods] are very processed,” Ashley mentions. “So, do we really want all these processed foods? Not really. So, do we need fortification? For most people, we don’t.”

Clearly, there are better options. Not only that, but fortification can also be like putting a band-aid on a gushing wound. “You can’t cover poor nutrition by adding extra vitamins, so the reality is that [by eating] a good balanced diet with whole foods, not processed, you’re likely not going to overdose on vitamins but also get what you need,” Ashley explains. Furthermore, just because food is fortified does not mean it’s healthy. Sugars, fats, and sodium are frequently added to these foods to make them shelf stable as long as possible.

Some bodies absorb and utilize vitamins and minerals better than others. Ashley recommends taking multivitamins instead of fortified food if a healthy diet alone does not meet an individual’s specific nutrient needs.

Is bison meat a better option than traditional beef?

Perhaps you’ve been to a restaurant and have seen bison on the menu. Maybe you’ve even tried it yourself and found it delicious. Bison meat is touted as better for you, but is that truly the case?

“Bison is one of those meats I’m particularly very fond of because of all the benefits it gives us,” Ashley mentions. “It’s a good option when looking at meats.” It’s lean, lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and has more omega 3’s and conjugated linoleic acids (a type of healthy fat) than traditional beef. “Bison also has more selenium, an antioxidant that helps oxidative stress,” she continues. “It also has zinc, which is very good for our immune system. It’s high in iron—which, most meat is high in iron—but bison is considerably high in iron.”

In addition, Bison meat is generally sweeter and more flavorful. One hundred grams of raw bison contains around 109 calories and 1.8 grams of fat. Meanwhile, one hundred grams of lean raw beef has about 291 calories and 24 grams of fat.7

Furthermore, bison is generally not factory farmed—they’re pasture-raised. This is more humane, and bison is more likely to be grass-fed. Their free-roaming lifestyle and diet create a leaner body structure and leaner cuts of meat arriving at your plate. “You have them grazing and not being given hormones, so it’s definitely better in that sense,” Ashley informs. Furthermore, strict regulations are aplenty for bison raising, and they are not given antibiotics.7

It must be noted that bison isn’t the only recommended way to enjoy red meat. Traditional cattle have healthier cuts too. Should you want another kind of red meat, Ashley recommends going as lean as possible. “I always try to look for 94% lean or higher. When it comes to cuts, we’re looking at sirloin, anything that doesn’t have as much marbling through it.” Marbling is the white streaks present in meat. While more of it provides more flavor, there’s also more fat, cholesterol, and cost. Other leaner cuts Ashley suggests are flank and flatiron steaks, but she urges people to steer away from ribs and Delmonico and ribeye steaks due to their high fat content.

It’s clear bison is a better option for meat eaters out there. However, there is a catch: a higher price. Still, Ashley believes you get what you pay for. Bison meat is more nutrient-dense and, in her opinion, much more satisfying in taste. It’s even one of her favorite foods!



This article has been reviewed by Ashley Boyer, RD, LDN. Ashley is a Registered Dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a national professional organization, and is licensed in nutrition with the State of Delaware.

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