Real Food Tips: 7 Reasons I Hate Artificial Food Dyes

Artificial food dye, synthetic food dye, food coloring, FD&C Red No. 40, or Tartrazine (a.k.a. Yellow No. 5)… whatever name it’s listed under, it is all pretty much the same stuff. And as I’ve said on this site before I have no problem occasionally digging into yummy homemade treats made with plenty of chocolate, sugar, or whatever else we’re craving, but what I NEVER want to “treat” myself (or my children) to is a dose of chemicals derived from petroleum. Yep, no typos there…that’s what artificial food dye is made from and unfortunately the 15 million pounds of food dye used in the U.S. per year (5 times more than in 1955) is in much more than just colorful icing these days. Dyes, made from the same petroleum that fuels our vehicles, is turning up in an insane amount of packaged foods including Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Minute Maid Lemonade, Lunchables, Fruit Roll Ups, Cheetos, and even “Light and Fit” Yoplait Yogurt. And the crazy thing is these companies tell us right there on the ingredient label that artificial color (and sometimes “artificial flavoring”) has been added…but most consumers don’t seem to be fazed by it.

Upon discovering what this (seemingly harmless and common) additive is made from I had to tell my daughters. I explained how it’s in thousands of products including birthday party cupcakes, salad dressing, cough syrup, and even daddy’s mouthwash. Rightfully so my 1st grader looked at me a little shocked and went on to say, “Can we write a letter to the president?” Now I love how that girl thinks, but at the same time it broke my heart that my innocent child thought that’s all it would take. If we just told the president that food companies were feeding us petroleum based chemicals disguised as brightly colored food dyes he surely wouldn’t allow it anymore. And while I am not very good at politics myself what I’d like to be good at is educating and influencing all of you to vote with your dollars. I truly believe that if consumers stop purchasing artificially dyed and flavored foods we can make an impact. If enough of us speak up the big food companies will listen to consumer demand. And I know this for a fact because that’s exactly what’s happened in other countries outside of the U.S (check out #3 below).…we are apparently just behind the curve on this one.

7 Reasons I Hate Artificial Food Dyes

1. They are made in a lab with chemicals derived from petroleum, a crude oil product, which also happens to be used in gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt, and tar. “Artificial food dyes are made from petroleum and approved for use by the FDA to enhance the color of processed foods.”

2. They’ve been linked to long-term health problems such as cancer. If you’re a child of the ‘80s (like me) do you remember that rumor about red M&Ms causing cancer? Maybe it wasn’t just a rumor after all. “The three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are contaminated with known carcinogens, says CSPI. Another dye, Red 3, has been acknowledged for years by the Food and Drug Administration to be a carcinogen, yet is still in the food supply.” FYI – According to Wikipedia, “A carcinogen is any substance … that is an agent directly involved in causing cancer.” !!! “There’s no good reason not to ban Red 3, something then-acting FDA commissioner Mark Novitch tried to do in 1984, saying the dye ‘has clearly been shown to induce cancer’ and was ‘of greatest public health concern.’ … Other dyes, namely Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are known to cause allergic reactions in some people and have shown signs of causing cancer in lab animals. Of course, this isn’t the same thing as leading to cancer in humans, but it argues for limiting intake, especially among children, who are getting the biggest dose of food colorings from a gazillion brightly colored, fun-looking foods.”

3. Did you know that food products containing artificial dye are required to have a warning label in the U.K.? The label states that the food “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” So speaking of M&Ms, they aren’t so brightly colored in some countries outside of the U.S. because manufacturers would rather do away with the artificial dye than have to put a warning label on their products. “This is why if you eat a Nutri-Grain strawberry cereal bar in the United States, it will contain Red 40, Yellow 6 and Blue 1. But that same bar in the UK contains only the natural colorings beetroot red, annatto and paprika extract. In fact, the UK branches of Wal-Mart, Kraft, Coca-Cola and Mars have removed artificial colors, sodium benzoate and aspartame from their product lines as a result of consumer demand and government recommendations. In the United States, however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to allow these toxic ingredients in countless popular foods, including those marketed directly to children.” Many Grocery Manufacturers Association members (like Pepsi, Kraft and General Mills) “have switched to natural colorings in their products in the U.K., where warning labels are required, but they’re not doing that here for the most part. That’s because no one’s making them do it, and switching would cost a lot of money.”

4. Synthetic food dyes have been shown to cause an increase in hyperactivity in children as well as a negative impact on their ability to learn.”Artificial food dyes (in combination with a common preservative) could make even children with no known behavioral problems hyperactive and inattentive.” “The science shows that kids’ behavior improves when these artificial colorings are removed from their diets and worsens when they’re added to the their diets.” and “While not all children seem to be sensitive to these chemicals, it’s hard to justify their continued use in foods—especially those foods heavily marketed to young children.” “According to scientific studies, these dyes are causing behavioral problems and disrupting children’s attention.”

5. They add absolutely no value to the foods we are eating, but do in-fact pose quite a few serious risks. “Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green. Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.” “These dyes have no purpose whatsoever other than to sell junk food.” “These synthetic chemicals do absolutely nothing to improve the nutritional quality or safety of foods, but trigger behavior problems in children and, possibly, cancer in anybody. The Food and Drug Administration should ban dyes, which would force industry to color foods with real food ingredients, not toxic petrochemicals.”

6. They trick your senses…just like other artificial additives including sweeteners.

In Defense of Food: “One of the problems with the products of food science is that, as Joan Gussow has pointed out, they lie to your body; their artificial colors and flavors and synthetic sweeteners and novel fats confound the senses we rely on to assess new foods and prepare our bodies to deal with them. Foods that lie leave us with little choice but to eat by the numbers, consulting labels rather than our senses.”

7. They are contributing to the obesity epidemic by attracting children (and adults) to highly processed food, which in many cases is being eaten instead of fresh whole foods. “Beyond the behavioral problems and cancer risks, the greatest hazard that dyes pose for children may also be the most obvious: They draw kids away from nutritious foods and toward brightly colored processed products that are high in calories but low in nutrients, such as fruit-flavored drinks and snack foods. Those types of foods are a major force in America’s obesity epidemic.”

Disclosure: My children do occasionally eat foods containing artificial dye because it’s provided to them by teachers, other parents, and friends, but it’s not something we spend our own money on anymore.

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  • Comments

    1. Danyelle |

      Such great information and so many things to think about. I’ve been wanting to stay away from dyes and this post has given me the information I need to let the “doubters” in my life know why I want to do this. Thank you!

    2. |

      Absolutely love this post and love to see this subject getting more and more attention. We have been 100% fake dye free for almost 3 years after we discovered synthetic dyes were the cause of my then 3-year-old son’s hours long tantrums (yes, HOURS) in which he would scream, “I can’t stop, Mommy,” while destroying his bedroom. He could not transition from one activity to another without a meltdown; he picked at his fingers until the bled. And on and on. Thank God an occupational therapist told us about going dye free. And, almost like magic, our son’s symptoms were gone. Going dye free LITERALLY saved my family. How horrifying that people do not know what they are eating because they have been purposefully deceived into believing that if it is on a grocery shelf, it is safe. We do not allow our children to eat ANY food dye — not from friends or teachers. My son has a bag of safe candy and snacks that his teacher gives him if the other kids are getting food for some reason. The school has clear instructions that my child is allergic to synthetic dyes and is not EVER allowed to eat them. We bring out own cupcakes to birthdays, out own lollipops to the haircut place, etc.
      Thanks again for the post. You can read Brooke Bernard’s rants about food dye over at

      • Catherine |

        This is a relief for me to hear. I honestly haven’t known anyone else whose child reacted so violently like mine. If she has the smallest amount she will be almost unbearable for the first few hours and it seems to take almost two days to wear off. She is 9 now and I have known of her sensitivity since she was 18 months old. The last couple of years got hard as she started to really feel it when she had to miss eating certain things at parties and so on. She did have some out of defiance but the last few reactions scared her enough that she self regulates again. Now my kids know that on days like Valentine’s they come home and just empty it all out on the table and we go through and throw away the stuff they can’t eat – I give them a few pieces of high quality chocolate instead and they are fine. Same with party favor bags. I am constantly having to fight the wave of what other people will gladly give her though.

    3. Jill |

      I believe Whole Foods does not sell any products with artificial dyes.

      Your daughter is smart and I like the way she thinks! I was trying to explain to my 4 yr old that not all children have food and he should try not waste food. He told me that we should pray to God and tell him the children need food.

      Anyway, I really don’t think our President/government cares one iotta about our health. After all, fresh raw milk is illegal is a lot of places. They rather us eat that “pink slime”. I’m not as good as you in food preparation but I’m so much better than I was. I shop at Whole Foods even though its more expensive. I can’t stand the taste of the unhealthy foods anymore. I love your website because it makes me feel I’m not totally alone in my quest to raise my child to eat properly. This morning when I dropped him off at his preschool, a child was eating a Dunkin Donut and my son said “mommy, that’s garbage”. So, I think he is starting to understand and I always tell him mommy gives him good & healthy food. Again, I don’t think our government cares about additives/chemicals and the such. It’s all about politics and big money. Seems to me our only chance is to boycott the grocery stores and/or not purchase all the “junk food”.

    4. Maryea @ Happy Healthy Mama |

      Great article–I totally agree! I enjoyed reading and learning from the commenters, too.

    5. Joyce | has egg colorings that are food based and you just add water instead of vinegar to them

    6. Marilyn |

      I am finding it truly sad to read some of the comments here. We still have such a long way to go before ALL parents get the message about food safety! NO kid “NEEDS” to eat foods offered to him or her–at school, at parties, at scouts or ballet or soccer, or anywhere else! Empower your kids to refuse the unnatural garbage being offered to them. Bring along your own healthy snacks and treats. Offer to be room mom and give parents a list of allowable treats–preferably non-food ones. Ask for parents to contribute to the “snack fund”, and YOU buy the Sunday School snacks for the year. Homeschool to avoid the constant bombardment of garbage (school lunches, candy fundraisers, “rewards”, parties, etc.) by those who ought to know better. Join the Feingold Association and learn all you can. Buy “safe” candy from natural food stores, and online sources such as The Natural Candy Store, Indie Candy, and Squirrel’s Nest. There is NO deprivation when you eliminate the artificial junk from your lives! We still have desserts, snacks, and treats. We still have holiday candy and birthday cakes. They are still sweet, attractive, and my kids love what we eat! AND they no longer have sleep issues, behavioral issues, or learning issues. They take NO medication for ADHD (as one of them once did). And we do not eat bean sprouts and tofu at every meal, we do not use all expensive organics, and all our food is not tasteless and grey. Normal, average families CAN do this!

      • Michelle |

        There are many factors that contribute to ADHD; food dyes, additives and diet are just a few of those factors. Eliminating them, while good for many reasons, may not eliminate ADHD symptoms in all kids. My son is smart enough and bold enough to speak out on behalf of what’s good for him and what’s not. On the other hand, he’s also a headstrong 9-year-old boy who loves sweet treats (and doesn’t often get them at home), so if someone offers him one, he’s likely to accept it if I’m not there to redirect him. I cannot monitor his food intake around the clock, and since homeschooling is not an option right now, my best hope is that people will eventually realize how harmful food dyes can be and there will be fewer of them in foods everywhere.

        • |

          Good point, and my ADD son has made some choices to eat something he knows he is not supposed to have. When the melt down starts and I ask what he ate, he makes the connection and it happens less and less. I also remind him he has to work extra hard to be in self control after he has had a treat. He is six and he gets it, it is not impossible.

          • |

            I feel fortunate that my 6 year old as well has strict instructions to never accept food that contains dyes, and he, so far, follows that rule. He is aware of how it makes him feel and tells others that he is allergic. And at his school, which seems to DEPEND on food to educate children (crazy!), he has plenty of opportunity to slip up. We have been working for three years to help him understand that the way his brain “feels” is a direct result of what he eats. That said, we never had any attention issues or diagnosis of ADD or ADHD. We were, however, seeing an occupational therapist for sensory integration issues: picking at fingernails, unable to get socks on, transition problems, coordination problems, emotional outbursts, tantrums, etc. All those gone with diet changes. Thank goodness!

    7. meriem |

      speaking about food dyes,I found the red velvet cake the most outrageous invetion ever. when i arrived in the us a year ago, I could not understand why a red colored cake was so popular. I hope that people will be more aware about the dangers of food coloring. I ve leard so much about food since i’ve been leaving here, most of my american friend don’t know what horrible things are in the food (OGM, food dyes, chemicals,..). so I make a lot if publicity to your website. keep up the good work

      • |

        I never got red velvet cake either.

      • Michelle |

        I’m amazed by red velvet cake, too. Is red food dye the only thing that differentiates it from other cakes?

        • Amy |

          Yep – it’s really just a chocolate cake with cream cheese icing!

      • Lilmrsmchenry |

        Personally, I have always followed an old family recipe which calls for roasted beet pulp instead of food coloring. I can not imagine how much dye you would have to use. It is my son’s favorite and he just requested it again for his 4th birthday on Friday.

        • Jessica |

          When it comes to red velvet cake it takes about a tablespoon of color for a standard 9×13 pan to make it vibrant… how scary!

      • Robin |

        My grandmother always used the ENTIRE bottle of red food coloring (which amounts to about a tablespoon) when making her red velvet cake. Once I found that out, it lessened my interest in that cake a whole lot even before I jumped on the real food bandwagon, or even started avoiding other artificial ingredients (this was years ago). It just seems really gross when you put it in that perspective.

    8. |

      I am not against eating healthy but it is hard to do and expensive. My husband & I don’t have kids (and don’t plan on having any) but my opinion is that something is going to kill you. We tried to eat whole foods without dyes for a week and came to the conclusion that we don’t like those foods. Perhaps we are too use to the convenience of processed foods but I hated taking the time to plan a menu and then the time to prepare the food. I had a full-time job with a part-time job on the side at that time. I also help take care of my 86 year old father in law. I didn’t have the time to do this.

      It is wonderful if you can though – good for you! If I had a child, I may be more cautious but I am not sure I would want my child leaving a birthday part feeling sad about not being able to eat the food served.

      • |

        You have never seen something sadder than a child physically and emotionally reacting to the POISON being legally placed in processed American food. My son is empowered and educated to avoid petroleum filled foods. At 6 years old, he is smart and savvy enough to ask every grown up who offers him food to read the label. Artificial color does not impact TASTE AT ALL. As this article points out, it is only there to trick consumers into believing the food is pretty and good. And clearly, the marketing tactics meant to deceive people are working very well. Indeed, we are all going to die. And I hope I don’t do it wasting away from cancer while my children watch because of something we all could have prevented. Nothing could be easier than reading a label and putting it back on the shelf if it has a color followed by a number.
        The implication that because we care about the absolute health of our children is somehow “sad” because SOCIETY tells us something different is insulting at the very least. I am not a sheep who will follow the herd. The point is that once you know better you can do better. A grown up can actively make a choice to ignore what she knows and ingest petroleum and coal tar. Most children cannot. If parents aren’t going to protect their kids’ bodies, who will?

        • Marilyn |

          VERY well said, Brooke! My boys, at 3&4, were able to refuse “bad” foods, and trade junky “rewards” for things I had stashed away for just such an occasion. They critiqued TV commercials aimed to fool kids. They laughed out loud at the unpronounceable ingredients in “convenience” foods in the supermarket (and maybe influenced some of those around us who heard them!). Knowledge is POWER, and to know better but make excuses for not acting on that knowledge is pure and simple willful ignorance. I’m not willing to risk my children’s future health for the sake of not wanting to “insult” some soccer mom handing out Kool-Aid and Doritos after practice!

        • |

          I agree with you on the issue of parents protecting their children Brooke. But I grew up eating whatever was available to my parents in the 1980’s – including fast food. This will sound like bragging but I graduated high school a year early and have a genius IQ. I have never truly been sick (just the occasional cold or whatever). I still eat processed food including store bought granola bars and Tyson chicken. While it is important to eat healthy and teach children food groups, I don’t think it is necessary to go to the extreme where you would stop your child from eating a cupcake or pizza at a party.

          • |

            Then you haven’t clearly understood what I am saying. Letting my child ingest even ONE Dum Dum lollipop results in an immediate (within 30 minutes)NEUROLOGICAL reaction. Why in the world would I negatively impact my child’s BRAIN just so he could eat petroleum products with the other kids?? I can make him a cupcake with NATURAL frosting and he’s perfectly happy. Because we work hard to educate him about REAL food.
            The food we grew up on IS NOT THE SAME as the food these kids are being exposed to on a daily basis. You can Google Robyn O’Brien, a mother turned activist, who wrote a book called The Unhealthy Truth to understand more about how “food” has CHANGED over the last 15 years. I also guarantee that the toothpaste you used as a child did not contain petroleum based dyes. Almost EVERY mainstream toothpaste on the market today contains dyes. So do pickles. And crackers. And breads. To imply that a kid is only getting food dye in cupcakes once in awhile is a complete falsehood.

          • Diana |

            WOW ! Mellissa Rose You really sound so foolish and un-educated. I am not trying to insult you but there are no words to describe how all of this “junk” food impacts our poor children’s bodies. My son will go from 0 to full tilt in a matter of minutes after eating anything with red food dye or high fructose corn syrup – he will go into a violent rage and when he is finally finished our house/his classroom has been turned upside down and he is completely exhausted !
            We just went to a birthday party on Sunday and our son (5) whispered to me “Mom I know I can’t have any cake because of all the food dyes but I don’t care because I don’t want it to ruin the rest of my day”. I couldn’t be prouder of him ! For dinner that same night he chose to eat flounder (2 pieces) and red beets with brown rice and a gluetin free carrot muffin for dessert. I know adults who won’t eat those things !
            I REFUSE to medicate my child (he has ADHD and ODD) when for the most part food is his trigger. Do a little research esp. if you comment on a board such as this !

          • rachel |

            Melissa – as and adult you can make your own choices, and to each his own and I wish you continued health. But I am confused as to why you are on this blog if you are actually taking a stand AGAINST what Lisa and people here are trying to do for themselves and their families — which is pretty smart? What you said is actually not too “genius”, but ignorant if you choose not to learn. If you ARE learning and at the beginning of your journey and trying to process and reconcile all of this information, congrats on taking a step! I am sure you will find support and encouragement among the many here. But I hope you are not here to just bash and try to discredit. I just don’t see the point to it.

    9. Cindy |

      Wonderful! Just started dye-free, additive-free
      gluten-free eating in our family. Love that you
      have compiled all info…. easier to share with

    10. Marilyn |

      Eating beter is neither too expensive or too inconvenient! Just because you work does not mean you can’t throw something in a crockpot, or make very fast, simple meals! Real food is nothing more than normal, everyday FOOD–not tasteless or weird. And my kids have NEVER left ANYWHERE “sad” about not eating petroleum. We offer safe, healthy, wonderful alternatives! Why would they be “sad”? I have nine children, ages 5-33, and not once in the nine years we have been eating this way have my kids expressed sorrow over not being allowed to eat things that they (intelligent kids that they are) knew was less than ideal. Why would they feel sad? The other kids were drinking an artificially flavored hot cocoa mix? We made a delicious mix of our own, ready at a moment’s notice! The other kids are having artificially colored and flavored “ice cream”? We had premium quality store bought, or delicious homemade ice cream! We’re a one income family and always have been. I make 21 meals a week for my family. We are not starving, nor are we eating only organics. Money is tight, but we eat VERY well. I am absolutely unsure as to what’s so difficult, expensive, weird, or inconvenient.

      • Marilyn |

        Oh–and I have to say we were ALL “sad” when we had to actually leave places due to one of our kids’ out of control behaviors! Now THAT’S “sad”. The child feels out of control and guilty, and we are embarrassed, frustrated and unhappy. Bringing along a fabulous looking cupcake and a bag of chips of our own sure beats that!

      • Kim |


        It might help to look at this Mellissa Rose’s comments with compassion. It’s wonderful that you make 21 meals a week for your family and that they’re all happy and healthy. It’s a big, no, HUGE difference to someone who is not accustomed to that. I see that you’re unsure about “what’s so difficult, expensive, weird, or inconvenient” – but your lifestyle is completely different. If this is an issue that is close to your heart, it might be helpful to point her in the right direction with a reference to a favorite cookbook, website, etc. that has helped you along the way.

        But on a personal note? It’s never felt difficult to budget your large family’s meals? Sure, it doesn’t HAVE to be expensive, but it takes time to learn how to shop for bargains (and for each family, what actually IS a bargain) and maximize food dollars. Not to mention the time and love that goes into preparing the meals – that doesn’t come easily to everyone.

        In other words, be thankful this lifestyle comes easily to you.

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