Is Food Dye Truly Dangerous?

By: Jordana Gross  |  October 2, 2016



Food coloring is everywhere. It is present in our clothes, textiles, food, beverages, makeup, pharmaceuticals and even paper! Unfortunately, it has become clear that food coloring does have negative side effects. Studies have shown that food colorants are carcinogenic. Additionally, they have been linked to hyperactivity and ADHD in children. A few examples of synthetic, potentially harmful food colorants are: Allura Red AC (Red 40), Sunset Yellow FCF (Yellow 6) and Tartrazine (Yellow 5). These artificial colorants are FDA approved despite their potential health risks. In order to combat this, we should substitute products with these food colorants for foods with natural dyes.

Allura Red AC, otherwise known as Red 40, is one of the most prevalent food dyes to date. It appears in most foods and beverages, like licorice and PowerAde. It has also been shown to cause tumors in animals and hyperactivity in children. Over a two-week period, mice who consumed Red 40 lost weight and reduced their running wheel activity. Additionally, their reproductive development was affected. These studies indicate that there are harmful risks associated with ingesting Red 40.

Sunset Yellow FCF (Yellow 6) is another fairly common food colorant, which appears in foods like orange squash, marzipan and apricot jam. It is known to cause hyperactivity in children and is also a common food allergy. One study examined the genotoxic effects of Sunset Yellow in mice. After three weeks of exposure, the mice showed an increased amount of sister chromatid exchanges in their bone marrow cells, chromosomal aberrations in their somatic and germ cells and an increased amount of sperm abnormalities. This study supports the claim that Sunset Yellow does induce genotoxic effects.

Tartrazine, or Yellow 5, is commonly used in foods like ice cream, soda, corn chips, candy and mustard. It is also used in some cosmetic products like moisturizers, lotions and perfumes. It has been shown that people with asthma have a mild intolerance to Tartrazine. Additionally, one study connected exposure to Tartrazine to the induction of sister chromatid exchanges and chromosomal aberrations in the bone marrow cells of mice and rats. Tartrazine was also shown to induce chromosomal aberrations in the fibroblast cells of Muntiacus muntjac (a species of deer typically found in Southeast Asia). All of these studies yield the same conclusion: that Yellow 5 is, in fact, genotoxic.

Many studies have attempted to determine a possible link between artificial food coloring and hyperactivity in children. Dr. Benjamin Feingold claimed that food dyes are the leading cause of hyperactivity in children; however he was later disproven. In a recent study L. J Stevens tested Feingold’s hypothesis and concluded that 11-33% of the children with hyperactivity whom he studied functioned better at home and in school after adopting an additive-free diet. Children with ADHD on an additive-free diet who slowly added back in Tartrazine demonstrated significant negative changes in their behavior. Another study examined the effect of six different doses of Tartrazine on twenty-four relatively hyperactive children in Australia. The children exhibited irritability and restless behavior at all six dosages. It would appear from the research that has been gathered that the removal of artificial food colorants from a child’s diet is not only a healthier option, but may also decrease hyperactivity.

These three artificial food dyes are not the only examples are harmful additives; there are many other artificial colorants that we use on a daily basis that are also linked to genotoxicity and negative behavioral effects. We need to be more careful regarding what we put in and on our bodies. We need to pay close attention to what is written on the labels that come on our food, drinks, products, and clothes. Or, to take things one step further, perhaps we could simply create our own natural food dyes. For example, we can use mango to make yellow food dye and beets to make red food dye—both perfectly healthy and natural options. If we truly are what we eat, then let’s start eating right. It is time to replace artificial food dyes with natural ones.