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