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  • Denise Scott

Food Dyes, Oh My! Adverse Effects of Artificial Food Colors and Why to Avoid Them

Food dyes are man-made, artificial colors approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and used by food manufacturers to cosmetically improve the appeal of food and drinks. They are almost always used in processed foods. Manufacturers prefer artificial over natural food colors because artificial ones are cheaper, more stable, and more vibrant. 

A plate of colorful cupcakes...loaded with food dyes.

There are absolutely no nutritional benefits to food dyes.



That fact alone makes me think I could end this article right there. Do you really want your children to consume chemicals derived from petroleum?! If that isn’t enough, I will present additional concerning reasons why food dyes should be avoided. 

There are currently nine food dyes used in the U.S. and approved by the FDA. The names of these dyes include a color name and number and are often preceded by other letters, such as FD&C. Some sources estimate that consumption of these artificial dyes has increased over 500% over the last 50 years. Most of this consumption is by children.

Dyes currently used include:

  • Blue No. 1

  • Blue No. 2

  • Green No. 3

  • Orange B

  • Citrus Red No. 2

  • Red No. 3

  • Red No. 40

  • Yellow No. 5

  • Yellow No. 6

Of note, 

Orange B is only approved for use in casings for hot dogs and sausage

Citrus Red No. 2 is only approved for coloring orange peels

Green No. 3 has been banned in Europe but not in the U.S.

Food colorings are not what I mean when I recommend eating the colors of the rainbow!

What foods contain these dyes?

Processed foods with artificial colors often contain multiple dyes. You will not find these dyes in most whole, natural foods. The most widely used are Yellow 5 & 6 and Red 40. You must read the labels - dyes are listed in the ingredients list.

Common foods containing dyes include:

  • Baked goods

  • Candy and gum

  • Cake frostings and gels

  • Colored beverages such as sodas, sports and energy drinks, and juices 

  • Cereals 

  • Frozen desserts, including popsicles

  • Fruit snacks

  • Gelatins and puddings

  • Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines

  • Packaged soups

  • Some protein powders

  • Sauces

  • Yogurt

Pictured above are examples of items that contain food dyes, such as cereals, yogurts, and sodas, especially to appeal to children.

So why are foods with dyes a problem?

In addition to these foods being unhealthy due to being ultra-processed and full of fat and sugar, other potential side effects have been seen, including:

  • Hyperactivity

  • Worsening of ADHD symptoms

  • Allergic reactions, which include hives and asthma

  • Skin irritation

  • Behavioral changes

  • Migraines

Even more concerning is that several of these dyes contain compounds and contaminants, such as benzene, (a petroleum derivative), that have been shown to cause cancer. The FDA still approves of these because they are presumed safe in small amounts, but the primary consumers are children. Their smaller body mass makes their intake proportionately greater.

These do not affect everyone the same. Some children are much more sensitive than others regarding hyperactivity effects. Some may not be affected at all. 

Yellow No. 5, also called tartrazine, is the primary dye that has caused allergic reactions such as hives and asthma. Anyone with an aspirin allergy is at greater risk. This dye is also associated with behavioral changes. Additional products that contain yellow No. 5 include some toothpaste and mouthwashes, lipsticks, and vitamins.

Are there foods that don’t contain these dyes?

The good news is there are natural coloring agents made from fruit and vegetable extracts. Some of these agents include:

  • Beet juice and powder

  • Blueberry and pomegranate juice

  • Cherry and strawberry extracts

  • Beta-carotene

--- These will also be listed on the label. ---

The bottom line.

If you think your child may be affected by food dyes, try eliminating these items from the diet for two weeks and see if there is improvement. You can reintroduce one or two items and observe their behavior to check for sensitivity. Even better, eliminate them permanently.

Read labels to avoid these chemicals - remember they are made from petroleum and shouldn’t be part of our diet.

Look for foods with natural ingredients by checking the ingredient list.

Finally, talk to your child about why you don’t want to give them unhealthy items and that many colors in food are made from things that should not be eaten.

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