By Alison White
The red azo dye amaranth 123 is used in a range of foods including fruit-flavoured fillings, jellies, packet cake mixes, red soft drinks and sweets.
It is also used unlabelled in childrens red-coloured paracetamol. Colourless versions of the painkiller can be bought from the pharmacy, but Wellington Hospital at least supplies only the amaranth-laden version in the childrens wards. A daughter of one of our members described how her son developed a rash around his mouth and became hyperactive after he was given a dose.
Like other azo dyes amaranth has been linked to asthma, skin rashes and hyperactivity. Amaranth was banned in the US in 1976 and also in some other countries because some studies showed it may cause cancer and birth defects. However, some slightly later studies did not support these findings and the issue was judged inconclusive. Little subsequent research has been done. Some more recent research shows that very low doses cause colon DNA damage (Tsuda 2001), that it shows clear immunosuppressive effects (Koutsogeorgopoulu 1998), and that there are some reproductive, developmental and behavioural effects in mice (Tanaka 1992).
In the meantime, while we wait for years for the Food Standards Australia New Zealand and MedSafe in the Ministry of Health to consider doing anything about it, we strongly recommend you avoid giving any substance containing amaranth to your children.
References available upon request.
Footnote: We would like to express our gratitude for the generous donation we have just received from the Wellington Hyperactivity and Allergy Association, which is winding up as a result of the death of the founder Brenda Sampson, who did sterling work in this area for many years. Eliminating harmful food additives continues to be one of our major aims.