The Fast Food Dye Health Facts

The color of these cereal loops are so inviting
The color of these cereal loops are so inviting to eat. Hm.

You’re slowly chewing on your morning cereal, trying to get your mind wide awake and focused for the day ahead of you. You will your eyes to focus on something – anything of even the vaguest interest – and they fall inevitably on the fine print of the nutrition facts label. (Read: How You Should Be Reading a Nutrition Label)

After scouring through the numbers and mentally giving yourself a pat on the back of choosing whole-grain cereal, your eyes fall to the ingredients list, and while there are a few words you stumble over in pronunciation and by extension, their definition, there are some words you can easily pronounce but have not the foggiest idea what they’re alluding to.

“What is red-40?” you asked yourself. But the answer to your question is fleeting. You’ve lost track of time and are going to miss the carpool. Maybe another day you’ll get your answer, you hope.

HFR finally has the answer to those questions – food dyes: what are they? Why are they used? And are they actually safe to use? Read our list of food dye health facts:


ThinkstockPhotos-78618185What are food dyes? Why are they used?

A food dye is a color additive or pigment that is added to a food or substance to change or give it color. There are three main reasons dyes are used: (1) Enhance natural colors, (2) add a color that wouldn’t be there otherwise, or (3) make up for color loss that occurs during processing.

Food dyes can be found in anything from food products to cosmetics and even pet food.

What are food dyes made of?

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, food dyes are made from petroleum byproducts. Fifteen million pounds of dye are used in products in the USA every year. There are seven dyes but red-40, yellow-6, and yellow-5 make up 90% of the dye that is used in the industry.

Are food dyes safe?

Stamps used to package meat are colored with food dyes
Stamps used to package meat are also colored with food dyes

Questions about the safety of food dyes have been raised since 1970. The CSPI even petitioned for the ban of food dyes and released a report in 2010 synthesizing various studies done as far back as the early 1900s. 

There are many concerns about the effects the dyes have on the behavior of children, such as ADHD and hyperactivity, and the association with cancer risk.

Three dyes have known carcinogens (Red-40, Yellow-5, Yellow-6) and four can cause allergic reactions (Blue-1, Red-40, Yellow-5, Yellow-6). 

Many studies performed on the safety of food dyes have only tested the individual dyes and not as a mixture, which is how they are often consumed in foods. A study performed in 2007 which tested the effects of consuming a dye based drink on children showed that they did have behavioral changes after consuming the food dyes.

The results of this study caused the European government to place warnings on products containing food dyes which caused many companies to simply remove the dyes altogether. However the FDA looked at the same study and decided the results were not significant enough to make any changes.

ThinkstockPhotos-178777326As a result, many products manufactured by the same company will be made with no dye in the U.K. but with dye here in the USA. Orange soda, for example, is colored with pumpkin and carrot in the U.K. but with red-40 and yellow-6 in the U.S. Fast food strawberry sundaes are artificially colored in the U.S. but are colored with strawberries in the U.K.

In 2011 the FDA acknowledged that food dyes can cause behavioral problems in some children but they still have not removed them from foods or required any labels. Since there is no nutritional reason to add food dyes to foods there is no reason to not choose a natural alternative. Some alternatives to artificial dyes are carrots, beets, spinach, pumpkin, berries, saffron, annatto, red cabbage, or purchase premade natural food dyes.

Sources Cited

CSPI. Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks. Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest; 2010. 

McCann, D., Barrett, A., Cooper, A., Crumpler, D., Dalen, L., Grimshaw, K., … & Stevenson, J. (2007). Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet370(9598), 1560-1567.

Read: Top 10 Foods You Need to Avoid

Read: Top 10 Recipes Proving Eating Healthy Doesn’t Suck

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