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. Anne |

      We are dye-free at home and have been for over a year. We homeschool so no fear of dye at school. She does still get dye from grandma, though. We’ve tried many times to tell her no, but I think she just doesn’t get how easily it hides in everything. My daughter is only 3, so she can’t quite control it herself. She knows she can’t have dye and sometimes will ask, but most of the time will accept what is given to her.

      We lightened up at one point and found ourselves having more dye around than we should and then we had one horrific evening leaving grandma’s when she’d had lots of dye and HFCS at grandma’s that day. Her behavior was so out of control. I didn’t even know that she’d had all that, so it wasn’t a biased look at her behavior. We were trying to figure out what was going on with her and finally I asked “what did you eat today?” and I started pulling out of her everything she’d had and it was all dye and HFCS. We tossed all candy and dye that had worked it’s way back into our house as soon as we got home.

    2. Kim |

      We have been eliminating dyes for about 4 weeks now and the difference in my child is incredible. I still can’t believe what dyes did to him. Sad is not leaving a party b/c he can’t eat CERTAIN (not all) foods. What the dyes did to him is what is sad. Sad is being told in September that he can’t sit still and can’t focus when he was fine last year. SAD is hearing other children say they do not want to sit next to your child at circle time b/c he wiggles and kicks them at lunch when he swings his legs. Sad is watching him be physically out of control running around, kicking, hitting, screaming and fighting with his sister while out in public and getting the “LOOKS” from people who think you are a terrible mom b/c you can’t control your child when in fact he was the one with no control due to the effects of food dye. In fact, my son is the happiest he has been in years.

      • |

        No kidding! Sad is crying over what happened at school, church or the store AGAIN. Sad is bawling your heart out because you think you are awful and have no friends because of behavior. Sad is feeling out of control. Sad is feeling like the worst parent in the world, not about missing a push pop or cupcake.
        It is all about perspective.
        (Plus my rule is I make them a treat to take if I know and or they get a reward at home later.)

    3. Charissa |

      I agree 100%. As a child, we discovered that my younger brother was horribly allergic to Red 40 and other food dyes. He would get violent migraines and would be terribly ill. We started with limiting Red 40, but now that I have a family of my own, I find myself avoiding artificial dyes as much as I can. I do not even dye my icing for various baked goods anymore. White is just fine!

      • Marilyn |

        Charissa–There are some beautiful all natural food dyes and colored sprinkles and sugars out there! Check out Squirrel’s Nest,and The Natural Candy Store online, or your local Whole Foods!

    4. Jennie |

      LOL, my 1st grader had a homework assignment to write the president and that is EXACTLY what she wrote to him about. She said that they were bad chemicals and they made her behave badly and she wishes he would get rid of them.

      Thanks for the article!

    5. Diana |

      I totally agree with so many of you w esp. The ones who’ve said they get looks from other people when your child is having a meltdown. My son has been in 2 different preschools already because of his behavior. It breaks my heart to hear him say he has no friends or ask if he can go back to his first school because he can listen beter now ! At the same time it makes me SO proud when we are at a party and my 5yo tells an adult that he can’t have anything red or with high fructose corn syrup because it gives him “crazy brains” ! I wil continue to keep my family clean and healthy – that’s my first job and one that I take pride in discovering with just a little research ! Good luck everyone !

    6. Aisha |

      Thank you for this post. Is this the same petroleum that is used to make petroleum jelly (Vaseline)?
      If so, I know this is not a skin care blog, but what are your suggestions for body care like lotions that do. It use petroleum or petrolatum?

      • Marilyn |

        The best thing for dry skin is pure coconut oil! It is very soothing and healing. Petroleum is petroleum, regardless of the form it takes. There is also a product called “Unpetroleum Jelly” you can find in health food stores or Whole Foods. Pure lanolin is also very good for healing cracked, sore skin.

      • |

        I agree coconut oil,grapeseed or olive oil are great skin moisturizers found in your grocery store cooking oil section. If you like the lotion feel (as my husband does) try Burt’s Bees, Kiss My Face or Shea Moisture brands. I like these as they meet my criteria for being readily available in stores other than health food stores in large metro areas and for being affordable. Shea Moisture is fair trade certified, smells great (no artificial scents either) and can be found at Target and Walgreens for $10-11. Burt’s Bees and Kiss My Face can also be found in grocery stores such as Kroger, Harris Teeter or Lowes Foods and are ~$10-14. Check out http://www.thetakebacktour for my listings and recipes

    7. amelia.louisa |

      I think the best thing to do is to vote with your money and not ever spend it on food with artificial coloring. It’s not JUST the government that doesn’t stop this kind of thing: Companies (the free market y’all!) will fight tooth and nail to keep adding the cheapest possible things to our food. This is not a country that thrives on doing what is best for the community (cause that might smack of socialism!) – this is a country that is all about the individual and their rights. I’ve heard many people complain about government interference (which truly does a bang up job does it not?) – but who also throw a fit at the idea that the government should get involved and stop them from using artificial dyes. Let the free market decide! Well, ok.. why not? Fine. I’m not spending my money on artificial foods! The problem we face is getting those who could care less (and that’s a lot of people!) to recognize the benefits – that we as a society… as Americans… can live without ungodly bright food. I actually read a woman complaining about natural dyes because she promised her daughter a bright purple cake – and heaven knows she “deserves” a bright purple cake. Really? Does she?

      I guess my point is, through all my rambling up there, is that for there to be a change in this country with regards to artificial dyes, there is going to have to be a paradigm shift in the way our society defines what we “deserve”. Our children DESERVE a society and lifestyle that we leave to them that promotes healthy and sustainable eating and living. So, in the end, with what we are up against, I think the best thing to do is to, again, vote with your money and spread the word as much as possible – and for those who choose to ignore it – it’s to their own detriment… and heaven knows, it’s their right.

    8. |

      Thank you for the post. This drives me CRAZY!!! My youngest is hyper sensitive to chemicals and has bad allergies. Such a struggle to get people to care/understand this issue.

    9. Alisa |

      Check out I agree that our country has allowed some outrageous chemicals to be added to our foods. We are also behind in correcting the problem but they are at least trying to re-educate. It is a start and some helpful information.

    10. Chris |

      I’m so glad you posted this! I really want to encourage parents of hyper active children to stop giving them processed foods with dyes in them and see what happens. My son, who is 22 now, started having behavioral problems everyday in pre school and occasionally at home. Sometimes he was wired and bouncing off the walls other times quiet and mellow. I started noticing it happened when he ate certain types of candy like M&M’s. The reward for being good at his pre school was a few M&M’s. He was a differnt kid after he wasn’t allowed food with dyes like red or blue anymore. My neice has the same problem with red dyes. She is quiet and shy unless she has had some red licorice–Then watch out!

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