or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 8/28/11

   September 3rd, 2011

Flintstones VitaminsRight as I got to work one day, the coworker I was relieving said a patron had just called in with a question that she hadn't been able to research yet. It was this:

They say that Flintstones vitamins are healthy for kids, but aren't those artificial colors they use dangerous?

It seemed to me that if this were true, then we'd all hear about it in the news, or they wouldn't be allowed to use the colors.

Anyway, my first stop was the Flintstones vitamins website, which has an ingredients listing. As I suspected, the colors listed were the common Red #40, Yellow #6, and Blue #2 that you see in other food products - which I'm sure must have been approved by the FDA to be used in anything someone, especially children, would consume.

To be on the safe side, I did another search for flintstones vitamins colors danger, which produced, among other things, a link to an FAQ on the Flintstones vitamins website. An excerpt:

What colors/dyes are used?
All of the dyes that are used in our products are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The dyes used are as follows:

FD&C Red #40 Aluminum Lake
FD&C Yellow #6 Aluminum Lake
FD&C Blue #2 Aluminum Lake

Why do Flintstones multivitamins contain aspartame (artificial sweetener)?
The Flintstones Complete formula and Plus Calcium formula contain aspartame. The aspartame masks the bitter taste of calcium found in both of these formulas. Sugar would be needed in large amounts to mask such a bitter flavor and would make the tablet too large.

Is aspartame safe?
Yes. It is important to note that aspartame is one of the most tested food additives in history and has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in multivitamin products.

That was informative, but again, not a surprise - of course a company is going to explain why its product is safe.

However, the "among other things" listed in my second search were lots of websites explaining the dangers of Flintstones vitamins. Namely, that the coloring ingredients can lead to ADHD, there's too much sugar in them, and more. However, many of the dangers seemed like they could be associated with any processed food, and one website also even said that that evidence of any danger was controversial.

I called the patron to let her know what I found, and to ask if she'd like me to do more intensive research by looking at peer-reviewed scientific journals. She said no, she had just seen a television commercial that made the vitamins look like candy, and it struck her that anything that looked like candy couldn't possibly be good for kids.

In the end, she wasn't all too impressed that the colors are all FDA-approved, but she accepted it and thanked me.

Meanwhile, I was left with all my childhood memories of my siblings and I around the breakfast table each morning trading Flintstones so we all got the character we wanted. Ah, carefree childhood.

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8 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 8/28/11”

  1. Julie Says:

    I was always trying to get the dog (Dino). But if there was a pink/redish vitamin in the morning lot, I didn’t have any choice: as the only girl, my brothers would give it to me immediately, even if it was a character I didn’t want. Ah… hard times!

  2. Monica Says:

    Dino was my favorite and purple was the tastiest. Purple Dino was the best! The vitamins are so small that I would think that the effect of the dyes and aspartame would be negligible, especially compared to all the junk out there with no nutritional value… Very interesting question, though!

  3. Amelia Says:

    There are people who are allergic or intolerant to Red #40. I knew a guy in my first few years of undergrad who was allergic to it, so he really had to watch everything he ate.

  4. Emily Says:

    I think nutrition/food questions are very difficult. It’s hard to get a non-biased answer. Even if you do go to peer reviewed literature, many of the studies are funded by companies with a stake in the outcome. And what’s “good” for a person is a pretty individualized answer. Plus there’s a medical aspect. It’s an area where people need help, and it’s tough to provide!

  5. Jude Says:

    I like thinking about you “reliving” a coworker. Sounds intriguing.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Amelia: A friend of mine in college was allergic to Yellow #5, and reading the ingredients when she was around was routine.

    @Monica & @Emily: I agree, and I think, especially with medical questions, what people expect heavily influences what they find. For example, if if doesn’t seem that bad, the idea of taking one small vitamin a day is no big deal; however, if you’re convinced they’re dangerous, the cumulative effect of taking one every morning for years and years seems deadly.

    @Jude: thanks, and I still maintain I need an editor. Actually, I had originally used the word “replacing,” but that sounded strange to me, so I used “relieving” instead – with the typo. Now it’s fixed.

  7. Jen Says:

    Does anyone remember the campaign in the 90’s to get Betty added as a character? The line was that the company thought she was too skinny to be a vitamin and she would break, which was hard to believe because all the characters were different sizes on the show but all about the same size in the bottle.

  8. Monster Librarian Says:

    Ha ha! I love when people call in with “important” questions, which when all the research is finally done and the question is answered, they say something like, “huh, that’s interesting.” 🙂