artificial food dyes

The Dangers of Artificial Food Dyes

In Blog by Brandon1 Comment

Do Colorful Treats Have a Dark Side?

Between sports drinks, candy and brightly colored birthday cakes, artificial food dyes have taken over our supermarkets. In fact, artificial food dye consumption has increased by 500% in the last 50 years. While sweet treats seem to be the main culprit, artificial food coloring is even found in certain brands of pickles, smoked salmon and salad dressing.

Derived from petroleum, these chemical substances that color our foods have caused a wave of controversy. Research studies claim artificial dyes cause serious side effects, from hyperactivity, allergies and even cancer. Some countries have banned or heavily regulated these additives. Let’s take a look at the main colorful culprits.

The Most Common Artificial Food Dyesartificial food dyes cereal

The most common artificial food dyes are Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. These three make up 90% of artificial food dyes used in the US. The following artificial food colorings are all approved by both the FDA and the EFSA.

  • Red No. 3 (Erythrosine): A cherry-red coloring commonly used in candy, popsicles and cake-decorating gels.
  • Red No. 40 (Allura Red): A dark red dye that is used in sports drinks, candy, condiments and cereals.
  • Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine): A lemon-yellow dye that is found in candy, soft drinks, chips, popcorn and cereals.
  • Yellow No. 6 (Sunset Yellow): An orange-yellow dye that is used in candy, sauces, baked goods and preserved fruits.
  • Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue): A greenish-blue dye used in ice cream, canned peas, packaged soups, popsicles and icings.
  • Blue No. 2 (Indigo Carmine): A royal blue dye found in candy, ice cream, cereal and snacks.


A Colorful Cause for Concern

Banned in many countries, the safety of artificial food dye is a popular subject in question. According to a report by the Center for Science in Public Interest, Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks, the nine artificial dyes approved in the United States are likely carcinogenic, cause hypersensitivity reactions and behavioral problems or are inadequately tested.

Hyperactivity in Children

artificial food dyes candy

As early as the 1970s, claims of hyperactivity and learning problems in children caused by artificial food coloring began to surface. At the time, very little scientific evidence supporting these claims existed. Even so, many parents adopted caution surrounding artificial food coloring, keeping the claims relevant and researched further. More recently, several studies have found a small but significant association between artificial food dyes and hyperactivity in children. In fact, a 2004 analysis of 15 studies concluded food coloring does have an impact on hyperactivity in children.

Studies also explore the effect food dyes have on irritability, restlessness, depression and individuals with ADHD.

Despite these conclusions, both the FDA and EFSA have concluded there is not sufficient evidence to declare artificial food dyes as unsafe. Even with cause for concern, these agencies follow the policy that a substance is safe until concretely proven harmful. Differently, as of 2010, the UK requires a warning on any food label that contains artificial food dye.

Allergic Reactions

Some artificial food dyes, particularly Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, may cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. For instance, research links Yellow 5 with aspirin allergies and asthma. Individuals who suffer from chronic hives or swelling are 52% more likely to have a reaction to artificial food coloring. If you ever experience symptoms of discomfort after eating, it is important to take note and see a doctor.

Cancerous Potential

Perhaps the scariest claim against artificial food coloring actually holds the least supporting research. In fact, studies using Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 found no evidence of cancer-causing effects. However, we cannot say the same about Blue 2 and Red 3.

An animal study on Blue 2 found a significant increase in brain tumors in the group exposed to a high dose of Blue 2. Ultimately, researchers could not determine whether Blue 2 caused the tumors.

The most controversial dye, Red 3, conclusively increased risk of thyroid tumors in rats exposed to it. Red 3 has largely been replaced by Red 40, but is still used in maraschino cherries, popsicles and candies.

Should You Avoid Artificial Food Dyes?

Among all the claims surrounding artificial food dye, we can say one thing with confidence: They are not necessary. 

Artificial food additives typically enhance and correct natural colors, give colorless food a bright identity or compensate for natural color loss during storage. If you prefer your foods with a bright hue, opt for ones that use natural food colors, like beta carotene and beet extract.

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