Did Sunny Delight Really Turn People Orange?
We spoke to experts about the 90s scare story, and found out there's plenty of other stuff still in circulation that could change the colour of your skin.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
The original Sunny Delight was as 90s as jelly shoes, Street Sharks and the overwhelming sense that the world wasn't all going to shit. The juice came in two varieties – Florida and California – and I drank as much of it as I could, helped by the fact that my parents, believing it was rammed full of vitamins, kept buying it for me.
That was until the rumours started. In 1999, fears that Sunny D would definitely turn your skin orange spread through the country when a four-year-old girl from Wales reportedly went yellow after putting away 1.5 litres of Sunny Delight a day. Effectively overdosing on beta-carotene – the pigment used to give the drink its distinctive orange – her face and hands had dramatically changed colour.
P&G, the company that manufactured Sunny Delight in the 90s, didn't respond to my requests for a comment – but here's what a spokeswoman for the company said at the time: "This is excessive consumption, and consumption on that scale would lead to a yellowing of the skin because of the beta-carotene, in the same way as drinking too much carrot juice or orange juice would."
But she wasn't drinking carrot juice. Like the rest of us, it was Sunny Delight she was addicted to.
Unfortunately, the yellow skin revelation came at the worst possible time for the company; Sunny Delight had just launched a Christmas advert in the UK that featured a snowman turning yellow after downing a bottle of their juice. While depicting yellow snow in any form was never a great idea, when linked to the fact that a real-life girl had literally turned orangey-yellow after drinking Sunny Delight, it turned into a marketing disaster. Thanks to the yellow skin scandal and rising concerns over the drink's vitamin content, sales had halved by 2001 and Sunny Delight left my fridge forever. Years later it was eventually rebranded "Sunny D" by a new manufacturer using a completely different recipe.
So how exactly can a drink turn a kid yellow, and could something like this ever happen again? Bridget Benelam, a Senior Scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, told me that eating a lot of food with high levels of beta-carotene can cause a condition called carotenemia, also known as carotenosis in the US.
"This is often caused by carrots, but could also be other brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, like peppers, pumpkin or melon," she adds. "This means that high levels of beta-carotene are absorbed and cause a yellow or orange colouring in the skin." Bridget says the condition is most commonly found in young children who are given lots of pureed carrots in baby food, but it's entirely possible that the beta-carotene that was in Sunny Delight really could have been the culprit.
"The girl was, on average, consuming 2-3mg of beta-carotene from the juice alone, but since her body size was small, it must have accumulated in the skin," says Dr Georg Lietz, a Senior Lecturer in Nutrition at the University of Newcastle. "She may also have had a genetic variation that increases the serum concentration after consumption. Some people are not efficient converters of beta-carotene, thus accumulate them more in the skin than others."
So what are the chances of the rest of us changing colour from eating too many orange foods? "Turning yellow is simply the beta-carotene itself," Dr Lietz explains. "The pigment naturally accumulates in the skin, and particularly in the fat layer. Average intakes in the western world are around 2mg per day, with some people consuming more than that."
There is only the one known case of Sunny Delight causing carotenemia, but that was enough to cause a gigantic scandal for the company. Changing colour due to eating too many beta-carotene-heavy foods is surprisingly more common.
"My dad noticed my skin was turning yellow-ish, so he took me to the emergency room assuming it was organ failure," says Madi Balkany, a student from Michigan who suffered the same symptoms as the Sunny Delight girl. She adds: "I'd begun to spot that my face was tinted strangely even before the first hospital visit. My hands and feet had a strong yellow tint. The sides of my nose and around my mouth were more orange compared to the rest of my face."
The doctor quickly knew what was up and she was told she has carotenosis, a diagnosis that she now realises was inevitable. "I got it from eating sweet potatoes almost every day for a couple of months, as well as a lot of carrots every day," Madi explains. "Before that my diet was pretty poor in nutrients, so I'd just started to crave vegetables 24/7. But people started pointing out how yellow my hands are."
She adds: "I was keeping a food diary at the time. I was averaging 15 to 20 sweet potatoes and 220 baby carrots a month. In March I ate around 450 baby carrots. I didn't think that much was too much, but now it's really clear why I got carotenosis. I also ate a lot of lettuce and mixed vegetables, but the doctors said it was the orange vegetables that marked my skin. I started limiting the amount of sweet potatoes and carrots I was eating. I guess it's made a difference, as I've gone back to a normal pink colour. I'm really glad I'm not so orange any more."
So will Sunny Delight turn your skin yellow? Not any more. It's the fruit and vegetables you want to watch out for.