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Food Dyes–How To Know Them and To Avoid Them

 By Kim Robson

Artificial food coloring can be found in nearly all processed foods today. Food dyes are any colorant, pigment, or solid that imparts color to food. The most common artificial colorings still in use today, including Blue No. 1, Yellow No. 5, and Red No. 3, were approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in 1931. Artificial food dyes were originally developed from coal tar, just as aspirin was, but now are derived from petroleum products.

Food dyes are used for a number of reasons:easysteps_photo_ES4_artificialcolors-504x334

• to offset loss of natural color due to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture or storage;
• to make a uniform product by correcting natural variations in color;
• to enhance naturally occurring colors, subsequently to “enhance” its flavor in the mind’s eye;
• to provide color to bland looking, colorless foods; and
• to make foods marketed to kids more “fun” looking.

The FDA has been watching artificial food dyes carefully for over a hundred years. Some early dyes were not just toxic, but sometimes also were used to mask filth or rot. Many children fell ill in 1950 after eating Halloween candy containing Orange No. 1 dye, and it was banned by the FDA after more rigorous testing found it was indeed toxic. The agency banned Red No. 2 in 1976 when it was suspected to cause cancer. It was then replaced by Red No. 40, still commonly in use today.

Food dyes must be identified in the required ingredient list on all food packaging. The following is a list of the seven FDA-approved dyes allowed for use in food in the United States:

• FD&C Blue No. 1 – Brilliant Blue FCF, E133 (most common blue shade). Brilliant Blue was recently cited in a study as helping rats regain motor control after a spinal injury. It causes allergic reactions in some people; possible link to cancer in lab rats.
• FD&C Blue No. 2 – Indigotine, E132 (indigo shade)
• FD&C Green No. 3 – Fast Green FCF, E143 (turquoise shade)
• FD&C Red No. 40 – Allura Red AC, E129 (most common red shade) causes allergic reactions in some people; possible link to cancer in lab rats.
• FD&C Red No. 3 – Erythrosine, E127 (pink shade) Commonly used in glacé cherries. This is linked to thyroid tumors in lab rats.
• FD&C Yellow No. 5 – Tartrazine, E102 (most common yellow shade) causes allergic reactions in some people; possible link to cancer in lab rats. It can cause hives in 0.01% of those exposed to it.
• FD&C Yellow No. 6 – Sunset Yellow FCF, E110 (most common orange shade) causes allergic reactions in some people; possible link to cancer in lab rats.

Limited use only:

• Orange (red shade) – allowed in hot dog and sausage casings only606.03AX - Do or Dye How to Avoid Artificial Food Colorings
• Citrus Red 2 (orange shade) – allowed to color orange peels only

The following dyes are BANNED and should NEVER appear in U.S. food:

• FD&C Red No. 2 – Amaranth, a suspected carcinogen
• FD&C Red No. 4
• FD&C Red No. 32 – was used to color Florida oranges
• FD&C Orange No. 1 – was one of the first water soluble dyes to be commercialized, and one of seven original food dyes allowed under the Pure Food and Drug Act of June 30, 1906
• FD&C Orange No. 2 – was used to color Florida oranges
• FD&C Yellow No. 1, 2, 3, and 4
• FD&C Violet No. 1

Hate the thought of chemical dyes in your kids’ food? In response to a growing demand for natural food dyes, a number are being commercially produced. Some examples include the following:

• Caramel coloring (E150) – Made from caramelized sugar
• Annatto (E160b) – Reddish-orange; made from the seed of the achiote
• Chlorophyllin (E140) – Green; made from chlorella algae
• Cochineal (E120) – Red; made from crushed cochineal insects (Dactylopius coccus); also called carmine; NOT vegan or kosher
• Betanin (E162) – Red; extracted from beets
• Turmeric (curcuminoids, E100) – Yellow; not very colorfast
• Saffron (carotenoids, E160a) – Reddish-orange
• Paprika (E160c) – Reddish-orange
• Lycopene (E160d) – Reddish-orange
• Elderberry juice – Purple-blue
• Pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius) – Green
• Butterfly pea (Clitoria ternatea) – Blue

In March, the FDA held hearings to investigate whether there is enough evidence linking artificial food dyes to ADHD and hyperactivity in children to indicate a need for warnings on labels. Longtime critics were allowed to speak about their concerns before the two-day panel, concerns which have persisted since the 1970s.

Not surprisingly, the FDA determined there was not enough evidence to warrant any new warning labels. But they did call for a panel of experts to further review the evidence and advise possible future policy changes. If artificial food dyes affect only a small fraction of the population, there may be few changes, which undoubtedly would be met with harsh resistance from food manufacturers.

In the meantime, if you’re the parent of small children or anyone who is particularly sensitive to or concerned about chemicals, then watch those food labels. I’ve seen a growing number of products, such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, using no artificial dyes at all. Their strawberry ice cream is such a lovely pale pink shade; it’s hard to imagine why we ever thought we needed to make food eye-poppingly Technicolor bright for it to be interesting.

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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One comment

  1. Annette Tweedel

    Hi,
    I would like to know what reaction comes with each food additive. There may be a lot of food additives out there, so my main ones I am looking at for now are the Food Dyes. Unless you can give me all the rest. Could you help me out with this. Thank You.

    Annette Tweedel

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