Food colors make our foods more colorful and appealing to the eyes. But, their health effects are frequently ignored leading to various medical conditions including cancer. Each year, food manufacturers add 15 million pounds of artificial food dyes into U.S. foods. Food dyes are among the most widely used and dangerous additives.
While the European Union has brought in regulations on labeling food dyes to keep the consumers informed of the health risks, unfortunately, there is no such requirement in the United States.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has petitioned the FDA to ban many artificial colorings as some of the most commonly used food dyes are linked to various types of cancers. They are also known to cause hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children. Here are the six most common dangerous food colors.
1. Blue 2 (Indigotine, Indigotin, Indigo Carmine)
Blue 2 is a dye obtained from coal tar. It is a widely used food coloring that is also used in the dyeing of denim in blue jeans. Although natural indigo blue is derived from plants, indigotine is a synthetic petroleum-based compound. In some studies conducted on lab rats, Blue 2 has shown a direct link to brain cancer.
Many people have also reported symptoms such as asthma, skin rash and hives, along with the possibility of a mild-to-severe allergic reaction, which is common to most artificial food dyes. Blue 2 is generally found in colored beverages, candies, pet food, and other food and drugs.
2. Red 40 (Allura Red)
Red 40 is known as a safer replacement for Red 3 (Erythrosine), but its safety is questionable. Red 40 may contain aluminum and other metals. Studies have shown that it is carcinogenic and linked to general organ toxicity. Children are especially sensitive to Red 40, with some displaying aggressive behavior, temper tantrums, and uncontrollable crying.
A high intake of Red 40 has also shown to cause migraines, upset stomach, nervousness, jitteriness and inability to concentrate in both adults and children alike. Many children’s tonics and liquid medications are infused with Red 40 that can also damage the DNA.1 Red 40 is usually found in beverages, bakery goods, dessert powders, candies, cereals, foods, drugs, and cosmetics.
3. Red 3 (Erythrosine)
Red 3 is a coal tar and fluorone-based dye, which is popular for its cherry-pink color. Though it was considered for banning in the United States in 1983 due to possible links to thyroid cancer, it managed to remain FDA-approved. After some studies linked its external use with breast cancer in humans, it was banned from cosmetics and topical drugs in 1990.
Besides its close links to thyroid cancer and hyperactivity in children, experiments on lab rats linked high levels of this food dye to general behavioral changes, sperm abnormalities, and DNA damage. Red 3 is commonly found in sausage casings, oral medication, maraschino cherries, baked goods, and candies.
4. Yellow 5 (Tartrazine, Y4)
A dye found in coal tar as well as in crude oil runoff containing benzene, Yellow 5 is a known carcinogenic. Benzene is still present in many of our foods, though it has been banned from gasoline. Studies have linked Yellow 5 to hyperactivity in children, severe allergic reactions to those sensitive to aspirin and decreased in sperm production in mice. People have also reported asthma, headaches, hives, and skin rashes.
The Feingold Association has found that it may also lower your sperm count and it is commonly used in medications, vitamins, and antacids.2 It can also result in severe effects, including allergic reactions and damaged cell information.3 Yellow 5 is widely used in pet foods, some bakery products, beverages, dessert powders, candies, cereals, gelatin desserts, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics.
5. Yellow 6 (Monoazo, Sunset Yellow, Orange Yellow S)
This is another coal tar-based dye and is similar in structure to Yellow 5. Yellow 6 is linked to cancers of the adrenal glands and kidneys and is known to cause digestive problems such as diarrhea and vomiting. Some people who consumed foods with this dye have reported nettle rash, skin swelling, migraines and aggravation of asthma symptoms.
Hyperactivity and restlessness have also been reported by some people.4 This dye is generally found in bakery goods, cereals, beverages, dessert powders, candies, gelatin desserts, sausage, cosmetics, and drugs.
6. Caramel Coloring
The effects of caramel color can be termed as extremely dangerous. Caramel color is added to many widely-consumed beverages as a colorant. When caramel color is produced with ammonia, it can contain cancer-causing contaminants such as 2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimdiazole (2-MI and 4-MI).
State regulatory standards seem to be effective in reducing exposure to carcinogens in some beverages.5 However, it is still widely used in candies, colas, soy and Worcestershire sauce, gravy, beer and precooked meats.
The best way to protect yourself is to avoid food that uses artificial colors and to consume naturally colored foods. Reading the label on the food may help in knowing if it contains artificial colors or not. But, in the absence of strict regulations, it’s quite hard to ascertain if artificial colors are included. The FDA has compiled a list of all food colors, natural and artificial, and the foods that they are present in.6
|↑1||Tsuda, Shuji, Makiko Murakami, Naonori Matsusaka, Kiyoshi Kano, Kazuyuki Taniguchi, and Yu F. Sasaki. “DNA damage induced by red food dyes orally administered to pregnant and male mice.” Toxicological Sciences 61, no. 1 (2001): 92-99.|
|↑2||How can a simple diet help so many different problems? The Feingold Association. 2013.|
|↑3||Kobylewski, Sarah, and Michael F. Jacobson. “Toxicology of food dyes.” International journal of occupational and environmental health 18, no. 3 (2012): 220-246.|
|↑4||Food Dyes. Center for Science in the Public Interest.|
|↑5||Smith, Tyler JS, Julia A. Wolfson, Ding Jiao, Michael J. Crupain, Urvashi Rangan, Amir Sapkota, Sara N. Bleich, and Keeve E. Nachman. “Caramel color in soft drinks and exposure to 4-methylimidazole: a quantitative risk assessment.” PloS one 10, no. 2 (2015): e0118138.|
|↑6||Barrows, Julie N., Arthur L. Lipman, and Catherine J. Bailey. “Color additives: FDA’s regulatory process and historical perspectives.” Food Safety Magazine 1 (2003).|