Food Colorings: A Rainbow of Risks

When you have small children, it seems almost impossible to get away from artificial colors such as red #40 and yellow #5. In fact, you may not even know that these additives are hidden in your cabinet!

From yogurts, to boxed brownies, to potato chips, cereal, frozen dinners, lollipops, mac n’ cheese, noodles, and even your daily multivitamin! We can’t seem to get away from them; and because they are present in thousands of foods, parents may think they are harmless. We’ve all heard it: “they’re just kids,” or “everything in moderation” but there is more to the story, and it’s a story you should know!


The Center for Science in the Public Interest put out this report called: FOOD DYES: A Rainbow of Risks. It gives the history of each dye, and the health risks attached to them, with the science to back it up. They have been petitioning the FDA since 2008 to remove these dyes from our food system due to the adverse health effects they cause, including hyperactivity in children and even cancer.


From the report:

A 1914 editorial in The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry stated that, “America can have a coal-tar dye industry if she pays the price” (Hesse 1914). Unfortunately, America did develop a coal-tar dye industry, and we may well be paying a kind of price that the journal editors did not have in mind. Down through the years, more food dyes have been found to be risky than any other category of food additive.


Currently, there are seven approved colors that remain on the FDA’s GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list:

  1. FD&C Blue #1: This dye can cause hypersensitivity reactions. An unpublished study suggested that this caused kidney tumors in mice. A preliminary study raised questions about its effects on nerve cells. More data should be collected to confirm its safety.
  2. FD&C Blue #2: The CSPI suggests that this dye not be used in foods due to the the statistically significant incidence of tumors, particularly brain gliomas, in male rats
  3. FD&C Green #3: This dye is one of the lesser used dyes on the food market. The FDA considers it safe, yet is causes significant increases in bladder and testes tumors in male rats.
  4. FD&C Red #3: In 1990, the FDA recognized this dye as a thyroid carcinogen in animals and is banned in cosmetics and externally applied drugs. The combinations of dyes and salts that are insoluble and used in low-moisture foods, known as Red 3 lakes, are also banned in topical forms. However, the FDA still allows Red 3 to be ingested in foods and drugs, and about 200,000 pounds of this dye is used annually. This is absurd. If this causes thyroid cancer when applied topically, what are the risks when actually ingesting it?
  5. FD&C Red #40: This dye is most widely used and causes hypersensitivity (allergic-like) reactions in some consumers, as well as triggering hyperactive behaviors in children. There are not enough tests proving its safety.
  6. FD&C Yellow #5: Six of eleven studies showed that it caused genotoxicity, a deterioration of the cell’s genetic material with potential to mutate healthy DNA. Yellow #5 triggers hyperactivity and behavioral effects in some children . It has also been known to worsen asthma, and may cause severe allergic-type reactions in sensitive people; such as migraines and anxiety . It may also be contaminated with several cancer-causing chemicals. This dye is currently under review, and has already been banned in many European countries.
  7. FD&C Yellow #6: This unnecessary dye caused adrenal tumors in animals. It may be contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals and occasionally causes severe hypersensitivity reactions. Benzidine and 4-minobiphenyl are two different names for the same compound, which is known as a human carcinogen.


… are these coal-tar derived dyes really safe?


From CPSI’s Report:

Long-term animal feeding studies are done to determine whether long-term exposure to dyes causes cancer or other effects. However, most of the studies reviewed in this report suffer from several significant limitations. First, most of the studies were commissioned or conducted by dye manufacturers, so biases could influence the design, conduct, or interpretation of the studies. Ideally, the tests would have been conducted and interpreted by independent scientists. Second, most of the studies lasted no longer than two years—and some were much shorter. Also, many studies did not include an in utero phase. Chronic bioassays would be more sensitive if they lasted from conception through 30 months or the natural lives of the rodents (as long as 3 years) (Huff, Jacobson et al. 2008).

Another consideration of unknown importance is that virtually all the studies evaluated the safety of individual dyes. Many foods, though, contain mixtures of dyes, such as the Blue 1, Blue 2, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 in Kellogg’s Hot Fudge Sundae Pop Tarts. Dyes conceivably could have synergistic (or, indeed, antagonistic) effects with one another or with other food additives or ingredients.

It is worth noting that dyes are not pure chemicals, but may contain upwards of 10 percent impurities that are in the chemicals from which dyes are made or develop in the manufacturing process. For instance, Yellow 5, the second-most widely used dye, may contain up to 13 percent of a witch’s brew of organic and inorganic chemicals (FDAg).2

Certain of those contaminants, such as 4-aminobiphenyl, 4-aminoazobenzene, and benzidine, are carcinogens, but are supposed to be present at safely negligible levels in the dyes (FDA 1985). Any carcinogenic effects of those low-level contaminants would not be detected in animal studies of the dyes.


Safe & in our Food Until Proven Harmful: Learning The Hard Way!

Historically, the FDA has removed many of the artificial colors previously on the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list because of recurrent adverse health effects in the public. In fact, it took over 3 decades to realize that many of the dyes on the market were causing so much harm! Are we willing to continue on as a live science experiment, consuming the ones listed above until they’re also removed? Do you want to learn the hard way, or be empowered NOW by learning how to avoid these additives?!

For instance, in 1950, Orange #1 was taken off the market after Halloween when many children became ill after consuming it. That same year, U.S. House Representative James Delaney began holding hearings on the possible carcinogenicity of pesticide residues and food additives. These events prompted FDA to re-evaluate all of the listed color additives. In the next few years, FDA found that several caused serious adverse effects and proceeded to terminate their listings.

In 1972, 12-year-old boy was hospitalized for four days after being admitted for possible rectal bleeding from the red dye (Red #2) in “Franken Berry” cereal. A case study called, “Benign Red Pigmentation of Stool Resulting from Food Coloring in a New Breakfast Cereal (The Franken Berry Stool),” was then published in Pediatrics explains the phenomenon later known as “Franken Berry Stool.” Four years later, in 1976, the FDA removed the widely used Red #2 from their GRAS list after public outcry resulting from a Russian study, and due to the fact that trace elements of the dye were potentially carcinogenic.


Yellows #1, #2, #3, and #4 are also among the list of colors that have been banned. Currently, Yellow #5 is under review because of links to anxiety, hyperactivity, migraines and cancer. In fact, it has already been banned in many European countries (as mentioned above) because of this.

Why are we putting these dyes in our food in the first place?

At the turn of the century, many foods, drugs, and cosmetics available in the U.S. were artificially colored. However, not all of the coloring agents were harmless and some were being used to hide inferior or defective foods. There were also many blatantly poisonous materials such as lead, arsenic, and mercury being added to coloring. We have come a very long way since then, but that doesn’t mean the safer colors today are actually safe.

People eat with their eyes, and food has to look appealing. Any parent knows that children are more attracted to foods that have pretty, bright colors. Food corporations know this as well. The brighter and more colorful, the more kids want it. We are decorating their cakes with it, giving out candy with it, and even adding it in to make their cheese brighter!

The best way to stop consuming these things is to stop buying processed foods. We eat the rainbow from fruits and vegetables in our house. The more colorful your plate, the better!

I understand that no one is perfect, we certainly are not! So, in moderation, choose treat foods that use natural forms of coloring, as opposed to their synthetic counterparts! Even if you do not think these dyes will cause harm when taken in moderation, let food companies know that you want better for you and your family!


Food manufacturers still use plant-based colorings in some countries. For example, in the United Kingdom Fanta orange soda is colored with pumpkin and carrot extracts while the U.S. version uses Red 40 and Yellow 6. McDonald’s strawberry sundaes are colored only with strawberries in Britain, but Red 40 is used in the United States. With many U.S. consumers desiring fewer synthetic additives, “companies may be better off switching to [plant-based colors],” says Michael Jacobson, executive director at CSPI.

“Natural alternatives may present less of a risk, but I still would like to see their toxic potential assayed before we give them to kids,” says Bernard Weiss, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester. Weiss argued 30 years ago there was evidence linking artificial food dyes to behavioral problems in children.10 Yet the FDA still does not require manufacturers to test dyes for developmental neurotoxicity. “Their inaction amounts to approval of an ongoing experiment with children,” Weiss says.

Here’s what you CAN look for on labels:



Below is a list of Debra Lynn Dadd’s (the “Queen of Green”) list of safe, natural food coloring:

  • Annatto extract–yellow color from a tropical tree
  • Caramel- derived from burnt sugar (make sure it is class I and non-GMO)
  • Dehydrated beets (beet powder)–red-pink color from beets
  • Canthaxanthin–pink color from mushrooms, crustaceans, trout and salmon, and tropical birds
  • Carotene–yellow color from carrots
  • Carmine extract (aka Cochineal)–red color derived from a species of beetle that feeds on cacti
  • Sodium copper chlorophyllin–green color from plants and copper
  • Ferrous gluconate (approved only for ripe olives)–yellowish-grey color from iron
  • Ferrous lactate (approved only for ripe olives)–green color from iron
  • Grape color extract (approved only for nonbeverage food)–purple color from the fruit
  • Grape skin extract (approved only for still carbonated drinks & ades; beverage bases; alcoholic beverages) )–purple color from the fruit
  • Synthetic iron oxide (approved only for sausage casings)–red-brown-black-yellow color from combining iron with oxygen
  • Fruit juice–various colors from various fruits
  • Vegetable juice–various colors from various vegetables
  • Carrot oil–yellow color from carrots
  • Paprika–orange color from the spice
  • Paprika oleoresin–extracted from the spice using toxic solvents
  • Riboflavin–yellow to orange color from plants
  • Saffron –yellow color from the spice
  • Titanium dioxide–white pigment from the mineral
  • Turmeric–yellow color from the spice
  • Turmeric oleoresin–extracted from the spice using toxic solvents


Natural colors you can find in your kitchen

  • Yellow – a few threads of saffron
  • Green – use spinach juice
  • Pink – cherry, raspberry or beet juice
  • Red- beet juice
  • Blue – blueberry juice

Let’s all band together, just SAY NO to artificial food dyes!

If I don’t use natural dyes from my kitchen or sources such as these ( product uses caramel color, which is burnt sugar, not GMO corn) or these, which use dyes derived from fruits and vegetables. I only hire bakeries on special occasions that color food naturally if we want confections with designs (Whole Foods Market is a great resource!)



This is the cake I ordered from Whole Foods for my daughter’s 3rd birthday. I usually make all of our special occasion cakes, but this was her first party with friends from pre-school and she wanted a “Frozen” cake. I can bake, but design is not one of my strengths. The cake is make with all-natural ingredients, no unhealthy oils and no artificial dyes or flavors! Look how beautiful it turned out! I actually went to Giant supermarket for the cake topper. What a hit it was!

Our voices are being heard. Jus recently, 11 food companies announced that they are aiming to remove artificial dyes and flavors form their products by 2018The list includes General Mills, Nestle, and Campbell’s Soup.

READ YOUR LABELS! These sneaky colorants are added to MANY foods you wouldn’t realize!


Center for Science in the Public Interest

Color Additives: The FDA’s Regulatory Process and Historical Perspectives

Environmental Health Perspectives, October 2010; 118(10): A428.

Smithsonian Magazine

Share on
Previous Post Next Post

No Comments

Leave a Reply