Real Food Tips: 7 Reasons I Hate Artificial Food Dyes

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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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451 comments to Real Food Tips: 7 Reasons I Hate Artificial Food Dyes

  • One of my readers suggested a petition too, Jamie. Will look into that.

    • 100 Days of Real Food

      I love the idea of a petition, but I think it might be unrealistic to ask the U.S. to ban dyes. I like the idea of the warning label (esp. b/c it’s already being done overseas), which at the same time would influence companies to use natural dyes instead of slapping on the big warning label.

    • Mary

      Keep me posted on this, and if a petition or anything gets started on this, count me in. I am not only concerned for myself, but also for my innocent 1-1/2 and 4-1/2 year old grandchildren.

  • I believe CSPI has petitioned the government.

    • Feingold along with CSPI spoke before an FDA panel last spring & they almost voted for warning labels 6-8 (I think), but ended up only saying that more research was needed before they acted on anything. It was very disappointing.

  • [...] is not normal – or even necessary.  As this article over at 100 Days of Real Food points out other countries have either banned food manufacturers from using artificial colors or they require a [...]

  • Here is a link to the meta-analysis of double blind placebo controlled trials regarding artificial food coloring:

  • Tia

    Great article! Thanks so much for putting it out here! This is an issue that I am so passionate about! I strive always to keep anything artificial out of my body, and the little bodies in my family! It can be a challenge some days, but so worth it!

  • Go to PubMed and type in these studies:

    Swanson and Kinsbourne (Science), 1980
    Egger (The Lancet), 1985
    Kaplan (Pediatrics), 1989
    Carter (Archives of Diseases in Childhood), 1993
    Boris (Annals of Allergy), 1994
    Rowe and Rowe (Journal of Pediatrics), 1994
    McCann (The Lancet), 2007
    Also try:
    Lancaster, 1999
    Tanaka 1993, 1996, 2001, 2005; Vorhees 1983
    Rosenkranz 1990; Sweeney 1994; Tsuda 2001; Sasaki 2002
    Aboel-Zahab 1997

  • Here’s a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics from 2008, confirming what moms all over the world already know (print this for your doc):
    “Despite increasing data supporting the efficacy of stimulants in preschoolers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) parents and providers understandably seek safe and effective interventions that require no prescription. A recent meta-analysis of 15 trials concludes that there is “accumulating evidence that neurobehavioral toxicity may characterize a variety of widely distributed chemicals.” [Schab DW, et al. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2004;25:423–434] Some children may be more sensitive to the effects of these chemicals, and the authors suggest there is a need to better identify responders. In real life, practitioners faced with hyperactive preschoolers have a reasonable option to offer parents. For the child without a medical, emotional, or environmental etiology of ADHD behaviors, a trial of a preservative-free, food coloring–free diet is a reasonable intervention.” – Alison Schonwald, MD, FAAP, of the Developmental Medicine Center at Children’s Hospital in Boston (published in the February 2008 issue of the AAP Grand Rounds).
    And the Editors’ Note which follows states:
    “Although quite complicated, this was a carefully conducted study in which the investigators went to great lengths to eliminate bias and to rigorously measure outcomes. The results are hard to follow and somewhat inconsistent. For many of the assessments there were small but statistically significant differences of measured behaviors in children who consumed the food additives compared with those who did not. In each case increased hyperactive behaviors were associated with consuming the additives. For those comparisons in which no statistically significant differences were found, there was a trend for more hyperactive behaviors associated with the food additive drink in virtually every assessment. Thus, the overall findings of the study are clear and require that even we skeptics, who have long doubted parental claims of the effects of various foods on the behavior of their children, admit we might have been wrong.”

  • Amanda

    Glad to see that so many moms out there are concerned and willing to do something to make a change. It saddens me to know that our government(I live in Canada)knows how harmful these chemicals are and are still allowing them. But, I also believe that manufacturers bear some responsibility in this too. Why don’t they take the initiative to eliminate these chemicals and make their products safer?
    What shocked me the most is that kids are at the greatest risk. Making mom’s aware is a great start! We have the biggest influence on our families food choices.
    Love your blog, read it everyday! Making Zucchini Muffins today.

  • Leah

    Do you have a link of recipes for natural dyes? I want to make my daughter cookies for her birthday, but am really second guessing the use of “over the counter” dyes. Are dyes on labels pretty obvious to read? I just want to make sure I am not overlooking if a product has dye in it or not. Thanks for all you do to keep us informed!!

  • so sad…tell your daughter that she could write a letter to the president, but he would have to get approval to respond from his Monsanto representative and their attorneys, :o(
    I love your blog. I read a book by Robin Obrien last summer…took my 11 children off packaged food, started buying organic and never looked back. Now I wonder why we never heard this. I see people whining that she should have known better…is she naive. Um, I thought I was informed, I knew it wasn’t great for us, but I had no idea. I pinned your information…going to go right now and encourage people to read the comments, too!!

  • Fairbank Literary

    Wonderful and helpful post, Lisa!

  • Heather

    Thank you for sharing this info. I’m now looking at lables for dyes and was shocked that it was in my kids toothpaste!

  • Cheryl

    We are responsible for our own health and wellness. Looking to the government? That’s a joke! We as consumers have the power to change things. Continue to get the word out there and don’t rely on the government.

  • As someone mentioned, the FDA held hearings last year to assess whether foods with artificial colors should get warning labels. As part of that, there were a few petitions circulated (and others have been circulated in the past). But, in the end, the FDA decided to do nothing, in part because, as one panelist said: “If we put a label that long on every chemical and ingredient that hasn’t been adequately studied, you wouldn’t see the package anymore.”

    Which of course is ridiculous. And telling. As I wrote after the hearings: “So the people making the rules (or advising the people who make the rules) won’t OK warning labels, because the dye-behavior research is inconclusive. Yet they’ll allow food ingredients where the research is… inconclusive.”

    Lisa linked to that whole analysis on Facebook, but I’ll include it here, too: In it, I explore why the United States continues to allow risky additives in our food supply. I provide links to many studies and background on the issue. And I offer resources to help people avoid artificial colors and voice their concerns.

    Also, some folks asked about using/making natural dyes. I have two posts that might help.

    This one details my experience using India Tree natural dyes, and also includes lots of tips from readers for making homemade dyes:

    And this one (from today, actually!) is about the ubiquitous rainbow cakes and how you can make them using natural dyes instead:

    Sorry for the long comment, and all these links. I can really get going on this topic. And hopefully it’s helpful.

    And thank you, Lisa, for bringing the issue to an even broader audience!

  • [...] 2. Real Food Tips: 7 Reasons I Hate Artificial Food Dyes Lisa’s posts are always fantastic; she does her research and explains herself clearly so that it’s easy to understand what she’s saying.  Among her reasons for speaking out against food dyes: they’ve been linked to increased instance of cancer, they’re derived from the same petroleum we use to fuel our cars, and they’ve been shown to negatively impact children’ activity and attention levels.  Apparently other countries have already taken a stricter stance against artificial food dyes, and it sounds like the United States has quite some catching up to do. [...]

  • Ha, Christina have you found the many rainbow recipes on Pinterest? It makes me nauseous to look at them but I am pinning “Foods We Avoid” to help others. Some folks are quite proud of their rainbow finds and get rather defensive about feeding their kids the junk, when I re-pin them under my less enthusiastically-named pinboards. Explaining my and my child’s sensitivity to dyes falls on deaf rainbow ears.

    • Rebecca: Yes, people get very defensive about this stuff. (Dyes and everything else.) But it does sink in, even if subconsciously at first. And that’s what I’m after — getting people to rethink their assumptions and think critically about the food they’re eating and feeding their kids.

  • Holly Murphy

    So I just got an email newsletter from dr. coldwell. He reports the most amazing things and I keep promising myself I will followup but dont. Tonight thr newsletter claimed, among other things, the carmel coloring pepsi and coke uses is a carcinogen. .fda knee. Anyone?

    • Holly: Yes, the caramel coloring in soft drinks and many other foods is made from a chemical, not from sugar/cream/etc. like you’d use at home. And I believe Coke and Pepsi recently announced they’d be changing that ingredient in order to avoid a cancer warning label now mandated by California law. Which is why dye warning labels would be so effective, too. Manufacturers know a warning label like that is the kiss of death, so they’re forced to change ingredients.

  • jai

    Thanks for this! My child had an allergic reaction to yellow food dye a few years ago. It has been just recently since my husband & I decided to go on a whole foods diet. The only thing we buy premade is pasta, all the rest I make from scratch including grinding my own ww flour, as soon as I can get ahold of a pasta maker I will make that myself too! Thanks for the informative article, I have 7 new sub-reasons to stick with the food basics our Lord gave us!!

  • Hey girl – great research. I have been researching vaccines and the horror. The CDC, pharmaceutical companies and government are ALL corrupt. Have you read the ingredients in them???? I put some stuff on my blog a while back. No $$$$ in healthy people.

  • Cady

    Thank you for this, it was just the push I needed to toss the dyes out of my house and have a friend pick up the India Tree version for me. I am thinking of Easter Eggs and glad to know this year the locally grown, pastured, organic eggs won’t be coated in a carcinogenic petroleum product that might make my 2 year old hyper. Whew. I needed this push!

  • Marie

    Thank you for this post. I thought I knew about all the bad stuff in food but I was wrong! I had no idea how bad food dyes were! And first thing I did was share my knowledge with everyone around me.And I have to say my gov’t saddens me:(

  • Julie E

    So interesting; Are there dye-free sports drinks? I don’t have a Gatorade on hand to check ingredients, but my girls, who play a lot of volleyball, do drink some Gatorade. I would love an alternative (they drink tons of water), but sometimes a sports drink is a nice change… thanks!!

    • 100 Days of Real Food

      There are definitely dyes in some of the Gatorades. Do you have a store like Earth Fare, Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s…they would have the most dye-free sports drink options.

    • Robin

      There are now a few flavors of Gatorade and other such drinks that are now dye-free. Don’t know which ones because I haven’t bought them, but I have seen them in the stores. That doesn’t mean however that they don’t have other artificial ingredients. I hear a lot of people are using coconut water in place of sports drinks because it contains the electrolytes naturally. Don’t know what it tastes like, haven’t tried this either b/c it looks pretty expensive, but it looks like you can order it by the case on Amazon’s subscribe and save to help with the cost.

  • Carla

    It’s amazing that other countries are able to step up and take responsibility for what goes in their bodies but over here we are so focused on getting things done quickly that we continue to eat whatever.

  • My children don’t eat it at all because if one in particular does, he turns into a hitting, spitting, speech delayed, defiant brat right before my eyes.

    The Feingold Diet has changed our lives.

    • Catherine

      We don’t eat it in our home either (or anywhere else) for the exact same reason. It hits my 9 yr old daughter the hardest – she literally turns into a shrieking, violent and out of control monster before my eyes (seriously scary). Through elimination we found out our whole family is sensitive to it on one level or another. Living in Europe where I believe it is now banned would be much easier!

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