The Facts About Food Dyes

Hold the sprinkles? The American love affair with brightly colored foods may be risky business.

What’s wrong with the natural color of a pickled pepper? That’s what I’ve been wondering for at least a year, ever since I decided to avoid artificial food coloring whenever possible and found that jarred Greek peppers only come in FD&C Yellow #5. Willing to accept that perhaps my obsession with natural foods had careened straight past “eccentric hippie” into the territory of undiagnosed mental illness, I’ll be picking my own peck of pickled peppers this year. There’s good reason to do so: artificial food coloring is linked to a multitude of side effects.

They’re linked to allergies, cancer and other heath problems in children and adults.

In the U.S., there are seven FDA-approved, mostly petroleum-derived food dyes currently in use: Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, Red 3, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. The three most widely-used colors – Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 – contain known carcinogens, and the FDA has admitted that Red 3 is a carcinogen as well.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, studies have found that Blue 2, which is made of coal tar, causes brain cancer in male rats, while Red 3 gave lab rats thyroid tumors. Yellow 5 can not only cause allergy-like hypersensitivity reactions, but can also be contaminated with cancer-causing substances. Yellow 6 has been implicated in tumors of the adrenal gland and kidney.

They’re in almost all processed foods – and even some fresh whole foods.

It’s not just the neon cereals, candies, sprinkles and juices that have been enhanced with artificial dyes. Bagels, waffles, tomato juice, crackers, salad dressing, cheese, yogurt and those pickled peppers are among the many packaged foods that contain food coloring. In fact, the blueberries in Aunt Jemima Blueberry Waffles are just bits of food coloring.

Fruit growers are allowed to dip oranges in a carcinogenic red food dye to make them more appealing. That dye is no longer allowed as an additive in foods, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers its use for peel enhancement acceptable.

Food dyes are used to exploit our natural instincts linking color to freshness, and to entice kids to eat junk.

The food industry uses dyes to manipulate us into believing that the food we’re eating is healthier than it is. We’re drawn to the brightest red apples, the most verdant salad greens and the darkest purple berries because we’re biologically wired to recognize foods that are brimming with nutrients. Conventional produce grown in nutrient-starved soil may be lacking in the color department.

They also know that kids, who are attracted by bright colors from an early age, are far more likely to pick Fruity Pebbles over beige, naturally-colored and -flavored cereals.

Dyes are linked to hyperactivity in children.

After meeting on March 30th and 31st this year to mull warning labels on foods that contain artificial colors, the FDA decided there’s not enough evidence linking them to hyperactivity in kids (by a margin of 8 to 6). “If we put a label that long on every chemical and ingredient that hasn’t been adequately studied . . . you wouldn’t see the package anymore,” argued Tim Jones, Tennessee’s deputy state epidemiologist and a member of the FDA panel.

But two recent studies sponsored by the British government, which looked not just at children who have already been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but at a wide sample of children in the general population, found that kids given foods that contain artificial dyes do indeed show a measurable increase in hyperactivity.

Dyes are discouraged in Britain, and require a warning label in most of the European Union.

The British Food Standards Agency advises parents to avoid artificially colored foods, while the European Food Safety Agency warns consumers right on the package that artificial colors may have adverse health effects. In fact, the EU is mulling an all-out ban.

Kraft, Coca-Cola and Walmart have already removed artificial dyes from the products they distribute overseas, but not in America. For example, while Nutri-Grain bars sold in American contain Red 40, Yellow 6 and Blue 1, those sold in the UK contain beetroot red, annato and paprika instead.

Natural dyes aren’t totally off the hook, either.

A natural red dye that is listed on labels as cochineal, carmine or carminic acid has a bit of a squick factor simply because it’s made from bugs. It takes 70,000 cochineal insects to make just a pound of this red dye, which is used in everything from strawberry milkshakes to cosmetics. The substance can cause severe allergic reactions, as can natural dyes annatto and saffron. (It’s worth noting that even the most natural substance can produce allergic reactions in very small percentages of the population, so that’s not necessary a reason to avoid them entirely.)

Safe, natural alternatives exist.

Colorful food is undoubtedly fun. We don’t have to give up pretty colors in foods in order to avoid potential health effects. In fact, many natural sources of food coloring have properties that have the opposite effects on our bodies – like turmeric, a vivid yellow herb that helps protect against cancer. Try matcha green tea powder for green, beet juice or any number of berries for beautiful reds and purples, cocoa powder for brown and red cabbage for blue.

Image: Pink Sherbet Photography

Stephanie Rogers

Stephanie Rogers currently resides in North Carolina where she covers a variety of green topics, from sustainability to food.