Food is primarily about taste, but as the saying goes, “we eat first with the eyes.”
No one knows this better than the food industry. Appealing to our visual appetite, U.S. food manufacturers use about 15 million pounds of synthetic dye a year—five times the amount used in 1950. Manufacturers prefer to add artificial colors because they are cheaper, brighter, and more stable than natural color sources.
Candy, cereal, and other products geared toward children are colored with the brightest pigments, but manufacturers tint more of your food than you might think. Meat, baked goods, beverages, pet food, soup, salad dressing, macaroni and cheese, ice cream, pickles, and cosmetics may all contain synthetic dye.
U.S. food dye regulation began with the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act which warned of criminal penalties for using “poisonous or other added deleterious ingredient which may render the article [food] injurious to health,” or “in a manner whereby damage or inferiority is concealed.”
Current U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines allows for dyes which have been tested and certified to legally specified limits that “will not pose a lifetime risk of greater than one cancer in one million people.”
Banned in Europe
Several dyes approved in the U.S. food system are banned in European countries due to evidence that they may cause tumors, organ damage, allergic reactions, and hyperactivity. The British government urged companies to stop using most food dyes by the end of 2009, and the European Union now requires a warning notice on the same synthetically colored food approved as safe in America.
In 2011, an FDA food advisory committee determined that there was no causal link between hyperactivity and food dye exposure based on available evidence. However, the committee urged FDA to conduct additional research to further investigate the potential for developmental or behavioral effects related to color additives.
The struggle to ban synthetic colors stretches back to the 1970s. One of the most outspoken critics has been the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The food safety advocate sent a petition to the FDA in 2008 calling for a ban on nearly all artificial coloring agents. A CSPI statement from July 2014, continues to address gnawing concerns:
“In the 1990s, government scientists in the United States and Canada discovered that the three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, contained small amounts of known carcinogens. No more recent tests have been conducted.”
In a 2010 report “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,” CSPI lays out the latest science on food color safety.
FDA Certified Synthetic Colors
Blue 1 (Brilliant Blue) is banned in France and Finland. An unpublished study found that Blue 1 caused kidney tumors in mice, while industry studies found no toxicity in mice and rat tests. This color has been shown to cause allergic reactions, hypersensitivity, and hyperactivity. CSPI says Blue 1 requires more independent testing to determine safety.
Blue 2 (Indigo Carmine) has been shown to cause significant occurrence of tumors, particularly brain gliomas male rats. It is banned in Norway.
Citrus Red 2 is used specifically to color Florida orange peels. It has been labeled “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). This color has been found to be toxic to rats and mice at modest levels, and has been shown to cause bladder and other tumors in mice studies. According to the CSPI, “The dye poses minimal human risk, because it is only used at minuscule levels and only on orange peels, but it still has no place in the food supply.”
Green 3 (Fast Green) is prohibited in the EU and a few other countries due to its having caused significant increases in bladder tumors in male rats. CSPI calls for more testing before Green 3 can be considered safe.
Red 40 (Allura Red) is the most widely consumed artificial dye. It has been shown to cause chromosomal damage, and lymphomas in mice. The dye causes allergy-like reactions in a small number of consumers and is believed to trigger hyperactivity in children. According to CSPI, “Red 40 should be excluded from foods unless and until new tests clearly demonstrate its safety.”
Red 3 (Erythrosine) is a suspected trigger of hyperactivity, and a proven thyroid carcinogen in animals. Based on this evidence, the FDA made a move to ban Red 3 in 1984, but it is still found in maraschino cherries, candy, and other foods. Red 3 was banned from cosmetics by the FDA in 1990.
Yellow 5 (Tartrazine) may contribute to cancer, but the science is still divided. This dye has been known to cause severe hypersensitivity reactions in a small number of people, and some suggest that it may trigger hyperactivity and other behavioral effects in children. According to CSPI, “Yellow 5 should not be allowed in foods.”
Yellow 6 (Sunset Yellow) has been shown to cause adrenal tumors in animal studies, but the dye industry and the FDA dispute these findings. CSPI believes it adds “unnecessary risk to the food supply.”
Due to growing consumer concerns, more companies now use natural coloring agents, such as turmeric, saffron, paprika, and beet extract. Natural color sources are exempt from FDA certification, but they must still be listed on the product label if used.
But just because it’s natural doesn’t mean you’d want to eat it. One popular natural dye, annatto is sourced from a tropical fruit, but it has also been known to cause allergic reactions.
Many natural dyes are safe—especially those with a long history of use— but some source material can be a big turn off. In 2012, Starbucks Corp. colored its strawberry Frappuccinos with cochineal extract, a red pigment made from crushed insects. Due to customer complaints, Starbucks has since switched to lycopene extract, which is made from tomatoes.