Food dyes are an interesting subject. Health groups have been calling for their removal from the market for years because of links to allergies, hyperactivity in children and cancer. The food industry uses them for one sole purpose – to make food look more appealing. That’s it. We’re not even talking about flavor enhancers here (which have their own set of problems). Food dyes don’t make food taste better and have no nutritional value to them whatsoever. They are nothing more than chemicals used to make us think our food is going to taste better.
Now the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is calling for the removal of several of these dyes. They say the three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are contaminated with known carcinogens. They also say that another dye, Red 3, has been known by the government for years to be a carcinogen yet it remains in our food supply.
Let’s take a look at some things that might open your eyes:
- Every year about 15 million pounds of eight synthetic dyes end up in our food.
- Per capita consumption of dyes has increased five-fold since 1955.
- Children consume more dye per unit of body weight than adults and they are much more susceptible to their effects.
- The FDA did not consider the risk to children when making their ‘acceptable level’ guidelines.
- Most safety studies conducted on dyes were conducted or commissioned by food dye manufacturers.
- Most of these studies lasted less than two years so long term affects could not be assessed.
- The amount of artificial chemical allowed in any given dye is based on usage from 1990 and usage has increased by 50% since then.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is claiming that the FDA is not upholding the law for the following reasons:
- Red 3 and Citrus Red 2 should be banned under the Delaney amendment, because they caused cancer in rats (some uses were banned in 1990), as should Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which are tainted with cancer-causing contaminants.
- Evidence suggests, though does not prove, that Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, and Yellow 6 cause cancer in animals. There certainly is not “convincing evidence” of safety.
- Dyed foods should be considered adulterated under the law, because the dyes make a food “appear better or of greater value than it is”—typically by masking the absence of fruit, vegetable, or other more costly ingredient.
There are 9 dyes currently approved for use in the United States. Many previous dyes have been banned because they have caused adverse affects in laboratory animals. In fact, the British government had asked manufactures, as of last December 31st, to completely phase out use of dyes and the European Union is requiring that every food containing dye come with warnings. Below is a summary of each dye and its potential problems. This list is from the CSPI.
- Blue 1 was not found to be toxic in key rat and mouse studies, but an unpublished study suggested the possibility that Blue 1 caused kidney tumors in mice, and a preliminary in vitro study raised questions about possible effects on nerve cells. Blue 1 may not cause cancer, but confirmatory studies should be conducted. The dye can cause hypersensitivity reactions.
- Blue 2 cannot be considered safe given the statistically significant incidence of tumors, particularly brain gliomas, in male rats. It should not be used in foods.
- Citrus Red 2, which is permitted only for coloring the skins of oranges not used for processing, is toxic to rodents at modest levels and caused tumors of the urinary bladder and possibly other organs. 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 caused significant increases in bladder and testes tumors in male rats. Though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers it safe, this little-used dye must remain suspect until further testing is conducted.
- Orange B is approved for use only in sausage casings, but has not been used for many years. Limited industry testing did not reveal any problems.
- Red 3 was recognized in 1990 by the FDA as a thyroid carcinogen in animals and is banned in cosmetics and externally applied drugs. All uses of Red 3 lakes (combinations of dyes and salts that are insoluble and used in low-moisture foods) are also banned. However, the FDA still permits Red 3 in ingested drugs and foods, with about 200,000 pounds of the dye being used annually. The FDA needs to revoke that approval.
- Red 40, the most-widely used dye, may accelerate the appearance of immune-system tumors in mice. The dye causes hypersensitivity (allergy-like) reactions in a small number of consumers and might trigger hyperactivity in children. Considering the safety questions and its non-essentiality, Red 40 should be excluded from foods unless and until new tests clearly demonstrate its safety.
- Yellow 5 was not carcinogenic in rats, but was not adequately tested in mice. It may be contaminated with several cancer-causing chemicals. In addition, Yellow 5 causes sometimes-severe hypersensitivity reactions in a small number of people and might trigger hyperactivity and other behavioral effects in children. Posing some risks, while serving no nutritional or safety purpose, Yellow 5 should not be allowed in foods.
- Yellow 6 caused adrenal tumors in animals, though that is disputed by industry and the FDA. It may be contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals and occasionally causes severe hypersensitivity reactions. Yellow 6 adds an unnecessary risk to the food supply.
I always encourage my patients to eat as naturally as possible and this is one of the main reasons. These chemicals, basically derived from petroleum, are clearly not as safe as the food manufacturers would like you to think they are. While not all of these dyes pose a serious threat, why risk it? You can bet that if you buy a packaged food and it is brilliantly colored, it has one or more of these dyes in it. That is also problematic as these dyes have been studied alone and not it combination with one another. No one knows what the safety of these dyes are when consumed with other dyes.
There are options for food coloring out there. Many natural colors exist that work just as well as the synthetics and are known to be safe. I’ve listed some below for your reference.
- Caramel coloring made from caramelized sugar, used in cola products and also in cosmetics.
- Annatto a reddish-orange dye made from the seed of the Achiote. (Some are allergic to this one.)
- A green dye made from chlorella algae.
- Cochineal a red dye derived from the cochineal insect, Dactylopius coccus.
- Betanin extracted from beets.
- Turmeric (curcuminoids)
- Saffron (carotenoids)
- Elderberry juice
- Pandan Pandanus amaryllifolius, a green food coloring
- Butterfly pea Clitoria ternatea, a blue food dye
I see many children in my practice that struggle with attention and hyperactivity. Those symptoms are often alleviated by removing all artificial sweeteners and dyes from the diets of these children. In terms of overall health, stick on the edges of the grocery store. Skip the middle aisle where all of the processed junk is kept. That is what will contain the dyes you want to avoid.