The Low Down on Artificial Dyes in Foods

I really appreciate and respect the freedom we have in our country…This same freedom allows us to purchase whatever (legal) item that we like.

So Trix? Keep ‘em on the shelves. Colored frosting? Eat as much as you’d like.

But not before you are first educated on the ingredients they contain.

So…as you may know, I am on a never-ending journey of evolution…evolution of learning about ways to make America healthier.

Thanks for riding along with me.

I Learn. then (attempt to) Educate. Learn. Educate. Learn. Educate….

When I educate…I hope to bring certain subjects, certain whispers, to light.

And maybe…just maybe…make a difference in our food system.

Perhaps even get enough people to stop buying a product to force the company, or our food system, to change their ways… for a healthier America.

Learn. Eat. Evolve.

Some words on artificial dyes in foods….enjoy.

Did you know the beautiful orange zest you put in your cake may contain a carcinogenic artificial dye?
Until yesterday, I had no idea!

It would be much easier to go through life and “not know” about these issues, to turn a blind eye to the problems that may exist, and just enjoy a damn good bowl of Fruit Loops.

But it won’t be so easy when avoidable health concerns present themselves in the future…

For now, I’ll skip the Fruit Loops. But don’t worry, I won’t judge your cereal of choice. The beauty of it all is…the decision is always in your hands.

Keep reading!

What is an artificial food color (AFC)?

Anything that gives a substance color (no matter the form- gel, liquid, powder, etc.).

What is the difference between a dye and a lake pigment? 

Dyes can dissolve  in water. Lakes are apparently more stable and tint by oil dispersion- ideal for coloring foods with fats and oils or other things with a low moisture content.

When did AFCs come about?

ancient times- Natural colors from mineral sources and vegetables were used to color food and cosmetics (seen in Egyptians, Native Americans, etc.)

1856- William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic dye “mauve.” These dyes were primarily made from by-products of coal (aka coal-tar colors)

1880s- USDA began researching the use of colors in foods. Butter and cheese were the first products in which artificial colors were used.

1900-there were 80 “safe” dyes available for use without any sort of regulation…some were known to be harmful and cover-up inadequate foods.

1906- Food and Drug Act was created, and prohibited the use of poisonous colors (thanks.). There were seven synthetic food colors approved by the USDA, and there was a voluntary certification program where food companies could choose to whether or not to take part.

1927- USDA handed over the coloring monitoring to the FDA. 15 colors were approved for use (including 6 of the 7 used today) in foods.

1938- The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was created as a result of a ‘mascara dye’ that blinded some women. Increased government regulation of cosmetic and medical devices. For dyes, this Act mandated a listing of coal-tar colors that were “harmless” and required all companies to go through the previous voluntary “certification program.” Color additive lakes were going full force at this time, they were limited to use in egg shell coloring.

1960- By this time, there were over 200 additives in use in many different products, other than foods. Many children became ill after eating an orange Halloween candy that had (already approved) FD&C Orange No.1 (1-2%). (If only the internet existed back then, to record these stories and perhaps save some lives)  So began hearings in which people discussed the “carcinogenic problem” that may tag along with food dyes.  The approved colors were then re-evaluated by the FDA. A “Color Additive Amendment” was created which required “only safe” color additives to be put into foods, drugs, medical devices and cosmetics.

This act also produced the ‘Delaney Clause‘ that prohibited the listing of a color additive shown to be a carcinogen. The clause states that “A color additive shall be deemed unsafe. . . if the additive is found. . . to induce cancer when ingested by man or animal, or . . . after other relevant exposure of man or animal to such additive.”

The FDA gradually removed colors from the list to where we are today.

What foods contain AFCs?

Many different items…

Trix cereal…despite what you were hoping;…pieces of fruit were not ground into a powder and then rolled into those colorful balls that taste so delicious.

And Lucky Charms?

No, sadly enough, those marshmallows weren’t made from a rainbow.

Many other things…BBQ sauce, ketchup, Jell-O, Medicines, Candy, Snack foods, Margarine, Cheese, Soft drinks, Jams, Puddings, Cosmetics, etc. etc.

Why do companies use dyes in food products?

1.To provide color to colorless foods/drinks (i.e make more $ $ Money $$)

We are drawn to bright, vibrant colors and associate colors with certain flavors. Drink companies earn a greater profit by enticing consumers through the colors.

Are they necessary to make a drink taste good? No. Here you can see there is a lonely pack of “clear gatorade” offered.

which gatorade quinches your “eye’s thirst” more?

What are the names of the dyes allowed in the U.S. (as of 2007)?

(FD&C= Food, Drug, and Cosmetic)

1. FD&C Blue No. 1 (AKA Brilliant Blue FCF)- produced from an oil base. 2003 “FDA has issued a Public Health Advisory that warns about serious adverse events when a blue dye, FD&C Blue No. 1, is used in enteral feeding solutions as a way to visually detect pulmonary aspiration. Blue No. 1 is allowed by FDA for certain uses in foods, drugs and cosmetics, but FDA hasn’t evaluated its safety when it’s used in enteral feedings. ”

2. FD&C Blue No. 2 (aka Indigo carmine- used in blue jeans)-male rats in one group that received a high dosage of Blue No. 2 had statistically significant increases in brain cancers and other abnormal cell development. No human studies have been reported, and experts disagree about the safety of Blue No. 2.”

3. FD&C Green No. 3 (aka Fast Green FCF)- banned in European Nations after animal studies proved it may be a carcinogen.

4. FD&C Red No. 40 (aka Allura Red)- made from petroleum. Banned in Denmark, France, Belgium, and Switzerland.

5. FD&C Red No. 3 (aka Erythrosine)- also used as printing ink, biological dyes. Originally, the U.S. partially banned Red No. 3  as studies proved a  link to cancer in rats.  That was disregarded through more studies, and it is now allowed without restriction.

6. FD&C Yellow No. 5 (aka E102, Tartrazine, Acid Yellow 23,  Food Yellow 4, and Trisodium)- known to cause the worse allergic reactions and symptoms of all dyes. “A variety of immunologic responses have been attributed to tartrazine ingestion, including anxiety, migraine , clinical depression, blurred vision, itching, general weakness, heatwaves, feeling of suffocation, purple skin patches, and sleep disturbance.

FD&C Yellow No. 6 (aka Sunset Yellow FCF, Orange Yellow S, C.I. 15985)- made from petroleum and hydrocarbon, it is a version of Sudan I, which is a known carcinogen. Sudan I can be present in Sunset Yellow as an impurity. It has been reported to cause allergic responses, especially those intolerant to aspirin, but there is not enough scientific evidence to confirm.

Dyes that are allowed in “limited use.”

1. Orange B- allowed for hot dog and sausage casings (Animal studies have proven toxicity levels from Orange B)

2. Citrus Red 2- Allowed for use to color orange peels- “Citrus Red 2 is listed as an IARC Group 2B carcinogen, meaning that it is ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’. However, it does not penetrate the orange peel into the pulp.

(But what happens when I grate my orange zest into my cake????) Sigh…

Dyes delisted and banned:

  1. FD&C Red No. 2
  2. FD&C Red No. 4
  3. FD&C Red No. 32
  4. FD&C Orange No. 1
  5. FD&C Orange No. 2
  6. FD&C Yellow No. 1, 2, 3, and 4
  7. FD&C Violet No. 1

Are there natural food dyes?


Caramel coloring (carmelized sugar)

Annatto (achiote seed)

Chlorophyllin (chlorella algae)

Cochineal (chocineal insect, Dactylopius coccus)

Betanin (Beets)





Elderberry juice


Butterfly pea (Clitoria ternatea)

However, in order to obtain the color from the natural source, hexane, acetone, and other solvents are used to break down the cell walls. These residues can be found in the finished product (listing not required as they are considered “carry-over” ingredients).

Also, there is not as much research on these dyes yet. Others have already been found to be potentially hazardous: Annatto, Cochineal, and Carmine.

Be aware next time you see a product that says “no added artificial dyes” as these “natural dyes” could still be in the product.

Can Organic Products contain artificial dyes?

No. Artificial dyes are prohibited. According to the National Organic Program (NOP) 205.201, organic products must be produced and handled without the use of synthetic substances.

“The handler of an organic handling operation must implement measures necessary to prevent the commingling of organic and nonorganic products and protect organic products from contact with prohibited substances” (205.272).

Are food dyes researched and approved by the FDA?

Yes and yes. But keep reading.

From FDA’s website: “Because of inherent limitations of science, FDA can never be absolutely certain of the absence of any risk from the use of any substance. Therefore, FDA must determine – based on the best science available – if there is a reasonable certainty of no harm to consumers when an additive is used as proposed.”

As you can see in the “historic timeline” above, food dyes have had a bumpy road. The FDA now requires food dyes to go through rigorous testing. The dyes must be tested on animals. Once approved, the FDA maintains an Adverse Reaction Monitoring System (ARMS), to serve as an “ongoing safety check.” (I see ARMS as lets start making money, so “cross your fingers and pray no problems arise. Even if no problems occur right away, long term problems could present themselves when it is too late. )

If you want to read more, check out this article by the WSJ showing FDA approval and research.

Enough said to lose my trust in any “FDA approved” product.

A quote from a FDA Scientist, David Graham: “As currently configured, the FDA is not able to adequately protect the American public. It’s more interested in protecting the interests of industry. It views industry as its client, and the client is someone whose interest you represent. Unfortunately, that’s the way the FDA is currently structured.”

Many FDA drugs cause major problems or have been recalled. A few examples:

  • Avandia: A type 2 diabetes drug, linked to strokes. On Avandia’s website, you see the warning of “May cause heart attacks.” A good Times article here. FDA’s statement here. Here, you can see that Avandia eventually agreed to pay 460 million to resolve lawsuits involving deaths.
  • Baycol: Cholesterol lowering drug pulled from the market, as it caused 31 patient deaths in 4 years.
  • Vioxx: Arthritis drug pulled from the market because of an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Resulted in 88,000-140,000 cases of heart disease. The year before it was withdrawn, Merck had earned $2.5 billion from Vioxx alone. Here is a list of other articles for more information.

So back to food dyes….

Are AFCs linked to an increase of behavior problems in children?

I’ll let you decide.

Today there have been multiple studies that have shown artificial dyes and synthetic preservatives increase behavior problems.

a. A study by the UK’s Food Agency found the artificial dyes to affect the behavior of children.

“The researchers found that hyperactive behavior by the 8- and 9-year-olds increased with both the mixtures containing artificial coloring additives. The hyperactive behavior of 3-year-olds increased with the first beverage but not necessarily with the second. They concluded that the results show an adverse effect on behavior after consumption of the food dyes.”

b. An excerpt from a recent (2012) study.

“Recent data suggest a small but significant deleterious effect of AFCs on children’s behavior that is not confined to those with diagnosable ADHD. AFCs appear to be more of a public health problem than an ADHD problem. AFCs are not a major cause of ADHD per se, but seem to affect children regardless of whether or not they have ADHD, and they may have an aggregated effect on classroom climate if most children in the class suffer a small behavioral decrement with additive or synergistic effects. Possible biological mechanisms with published evidence include the effects on nutrient levels, genetic vulnerability, and changes in electroencephalographic beta-band power.”

c. Another study; Swanson and Kinsbourne (Science), 1980:

“The performance of the hyperactive children on paired-associate learning tests on the day they received the dye blend was impaired relative to their performance after they received the placebo, but the performance of the nonhyperactive group was not affected by the challenge with the food dye blend.”

d. Another study; Boris, 1994 

“This study demonstrates a beneficial effect of eliminating reactive foods and artificial colors in children with ADHD. Dietary factors may play a significant role in the etiology of the majority of children with ADHD.”

e. Another study, Rowe, 1994

“Behavioral changes in irritability, restlessness, and sleep disturbance are associated with the ingestion of tartrazine in some children. A dose response effect was observed.”

f. Another study, Lancelot, 2007

“Artificial colours or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the general population.”

As always, there are studies that prove and disprove this claim. The best option is to see if you notice a difference in your own kids, or ask other parents that have already tried.

What is the FDA saying?

Of course, the FDA (and their financial ties) make it easy to dismiss these studies and statements.

“FDA Panel Says No Support for Linking Food Dyes, Hyper Kids.” Pay close attention. The 11-3 vote said there was “not enough evidence to conclude that artificial dyes used to color foods contribute to hyperactivity in children.”

They did not rule out the negative effect completely.

(I wonder which artificial dye company funded the study.)

You will see, if you decide to research, hundreds of families that have children with ADHD and their behavior improvements with the removal of artificial dyes and preservatives.

Are there any benefits to food dyes?

  1. BBG  (Brilliant Blue)

A crazy study was conducted where the BBG was injected into rats with a spine injury- after the injection they were able to walk again.

The only downside? It temporarily turned the rats blue.

But when I really stop, think, and look back at those findings…I find it very strange that a blue dye can affect cells so much that it “heals” an injury. Perhaps the fact that it “helped” really isn’t a good sign at all. Dyes may be interfering with our cells in more ways than we think.

What are other countries doing?

Europe requires a warning label on products with food dyes. It reads “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

One of Canada’s companies, Loblaw, announced they would be removing artificial colorings by 2013. This change will also affect other products.

Nestle, got rid of artificial colors and flavors in the U.K. products in March of this year, as well as the “Smarties” products in Canada.

Supposedly the Kraft, Coca Cola and Wal-Mart branches in the U.K. have already removed these artificial food colors (or should I be saying colours) and dyes distributed in other countries.

Why are these companies doing this?


Here you can see the difference in Nutri-Grain bars.

What are we doing in America?

Unfortunately, not too much…yet.

CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) is urging the FDA to ban the dyes outright. It keeps getting denied. So, they have created a petition that asks the FDA to require a warning label on foods with artificial dyes, similar to those in the UK.

CSPI also asks the FDA to correct the information on its website about the impact of the dyes on behavior.

You can view their petition here.

You can view their research here.

So what should I do?

As always, the decision is up to you. I don’t judge one way or the other, I just enjoy researching, learning, and then writing about what I found.

Here are my suggestions- in no particular order. (Please feel free to take them or leave them!)

  1. Read the food label of every food product you purchase. If you see any food dyes or strange words, put it back and slowly back away.
  2. Keep the majority of the foods in your grocery cart to those that do not have an ingredient list.
  3. Buy organic fruits and vegetables
  4. Still eat your favorite foods, such as M&Ms (in limited amounts…or only eat the brown M&Ms 🙂
  5. Check out this awesome video.

And the most important suggestion I could make would be to educate others. Spread the word.

If you are passionate about avoiding AFCs, don’t buy the products. Sign the listed petition. Ask your grocery store to provide products without dyes.

And perhaps we will rustle up enough feathers to get companies to change for a healthier America.

as always…

learn first.

then eat.

and consequently, evolve,  into a healthier person.

cheers and happy evolving.


5 thoughts on “The Low Down on Artificial Dyes in Foods

  1. lol, cause chocolate is already brown, so there’s less dye in brown m&ms! great post-several of my family members have allergies to dyes, especially blue. its harder to eliminate them than you’d think, unless you stick to suggestion #2. i will say that fruit loops used to be the only cereal i’d eat, but now i try to stick to special k or kashi and the kids only VERY rarely get anything other than raisin bran or cheerios. thanks for the post!

    • haha, oh I know- it is VERY difficult! it is crazy how many different ways they find to put dyes in your foods!! I still enjoy my colored candy and frosting…and sprinkles, too 🙂 just enjoy them less, these days!

  2. Pingback: Sweet Plantain Snack | basal evolution

  3. I told Jonnie (my daughter who is 6) at the store the other day, ” I’d rather you eat the chocolate chip cookies then the Doritos!” People looked crazy at me, but I refuse to let her eat anything with dye in my house! I’ve yet to find sliced hamburger pickles without dye so I slice koshers. Crazy! I have an article about how dyes help cause pancreatic cancer! I loved Patrick swayze!

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