Real Food Tips: 7 Reasons I Hate Artificial Food Dyes

Artificial food dye, synthetic food dye, food coloring, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Blue No. 1, 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 baked goods 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 (it used to be derived from coal tar – so we haven’t improved much!) 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 food manufacturers tell us right there on the ingredient label that artificial food colorings (and sometimes “artificial flavoring”) have been added…but most consumers don’t seem to be fazed by it.

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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 manufacturers 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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413 thoughts on “Real Food Tips: 7 Reasons I Hate Artificial Food Dyes”

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  1. I agree very much with this reply. You would be surprised how many natural foods, even down to your freshly brewed organic coffee, has carcinogens. Let’s look at studies and reference them, not newsmedia. Reference the studies that the FDA has posted not newspaper outlets. The hyperactivity was a terrible study with I believe a small sample size of family that were involved. So again, let’s read the scientific methods of how they came up with all these conclusions before jumping on the band wagon.
    Rose, please don’t tell us to google petroleum, you obviously don’t understand the context of what he is saying. Also, if you don’t have a chemical engineering or decent science background, it’s like basically banging our heads on a brick wall. I just wanted to see what so-called bloggers and influencers are spreading online because they obviously know more, right Rose?

  2. Trader Joes has licorice and many other treats- all without any artificial ingredients! We have eaten their treats exclusively for over 10 years. We never had to put my son who has ADHD on any medication.

    1. Really the only time change happens is when the people wake up and stop buying harmful items and stop being ignorant. Law cannot safe your health if so much information is online and people just ignore about taking care of themselves.

      Ignorance kills. Laziness to cook a meal and depend on process food, kills.

  3. Common sense tells you that you don’t need individualized studies to figure out what we are eating now compared to years ago is causing most Americans to be sick now more than ever. There’s a reason why a lot of artificial fake ingredients are banned in other countries. And why compared to other countries, Americans are the heaviest in weight. I know when I cut all that artificial crap out of my diet and started eating whole foods, I noticed a big difference in the way I feel with a lot more energy and focus. I don’t need to wait on a scientific study to figure out that eating natural whole foods is better than eating something labeled with artificial anything on it.

    1. Well, it just boils down to ignorance. When ignorance dwells in a nation their consumer continues in the life style, and when they are sick they find someone to blame. In asia, people read and learn , check and then do it…. they stop buying products they don’t want. So what does the manufacturer do? They aren’t selling product like they use to… they have to repackage and remarket their products.

      Then again, corruption can buy some falsely label items. Like wild caught fish, most of the time the fish monger would say his source is wild caught. Truth is they lied most of the time, only 35% – 40% of the fish is wild caught and they are expensive. Fish mongers just lied about their source.

      Honestly, if you do lots of home cooking and eat less process food … you are probably safer then most. If you work in an office, you probably only need 1 heavy meal in a day and light snacks for the other 2. Fasting keeps you healthy too.

  4. There is a lot of misinformation here. This thought that Petroleum is something horrible is ridiculous. It is literally the earth’s carbon reservoir. The silliness that someone is says “Oh no, Petroleum is the source of this chemical and therefore it is bad”…amazing. Just because it is slimy and ugly initially, makes it a target as something awful, when it is one of the most useful chemical supplies currently available. The plastic that is probably holding your sandwich came from it as well. This is akin to saying that since certain poppy seeds give us heroin, we shouldn’t consider it for other uses.

    There is a considerable amount of carcinogen misinformation as well, but I’ll let others address that.

  5. Does anyone know…does medical allergy testing for food allergies include testing for reactions for artificial dyes, chemicals, etc.?

    My son has ADHD. I do a lot of homemade cooking so he gets a lot fewer artificial ingredients than a typical diet, but he still gets his share. It would be a hard-sell in my home to do an elimination diet test, so if there is a way to medically-diagnose food sensitivities or allergies like this, it would make it a lot easier. Thanks!

    1. There is no scientific link between Yellow #5, Yellow #6, and cancer (most of the dyes that do have already been phased out), nor is there a scientifically proven link between them (or for that matter, ANY artificial dye) and ADHD. Yellow #5 can trigger allergic reactions in people who are also allergic to aspirin, but Yellow #6 has no known adverse side effects.

      I highly recommend actually looking up the chemicals themselves and not listening to people spouting claims without a sound scientific basis.

      1. My favorite chewy, terrible for me candy, twizzlers cherry nibs, give me anxiety attacks. When I realized this I through the entire 5lb bag out. Haven’t touched them since. It was supposedly the red 40. Oh man, was that the worst anxiety I’ve ever had.

    2. Medical allergy testing does test for dyes because I had the allergy test when I was young… in the early 80’s… and I am allergic to yellow dye #5 (tartrazine).

  6. Jonathan Reed

    1) Petroleum is a source of a wide variety of hydrocarbons that are use throughout the world for many of the things that make your daily existence possible. There is nothing inherently dangerous in the fact these compounds come from petroleum. 2&4) Are unsubstantiated by true scientific studies. If you have specific vs. “studies have shown” references please list them. 3) This was due to consumer sentiment NOT safety issues. 5,6&7 are plausible. Let’s get more science and less emotion into clean eating.

  7. You do realize that after the process of creating the food coloring from petroleum, there are no more bad chemicals from the petroleum, or else they wouldn’t be distributing products in the U.S. that contain dangerous chemicals. Food coloring is safe to eat, so don’t be such a salty Susan about it.

    1. ‘Salty Susan?’ She’s being smart, even if the petroleum is magically gone. I can personally attribute many allergic reactions my family has had to the dyes… eczema (Red 40) ), asthma (yellow 5&6) , rhinitis, acne, and more. … The point stating there is no nutritional value alone is enough, why risk all the KNOWN side effects, much less the unknown? How many less cancers might we have if these dyes were gone?

      1. Uhm, little to none? All dyes with actual scientific link to cancer have been phased out. A carcinogen is anything that can be considered toxic at all in any way, and many things you eat have them (did you know that alcohol is a carcinogen???) Petroleum is a source of hydrocarbons as this person pointed out, and the whole point of a refining process is to remove the genuinely harmful bits of it, leaving things that we can eat. If these things were truly toxic, they would actually be banned in other places, not receive the “California Cancer Warning” treatment.

    2. you say it doesn’t affect you then you should do some research because it is really bad for you the government doesn’t care about out health

  8. I am a new mom and a food Nazi. Part of me is scared of the judgment and scrutiny my kids or I will get over my strict food rules. There should be no fear considering all of this information stating how bad certain ingredients are. This is ridiculous!

  9. My son had a number of behavioral problems. Strangely they seemed to come and go. We suspected he might have ADHD or even be on the autos scale but since the symptoms seemed to come and go, we decided to wait to see if they went away with age. By the time he got to kindergarten his behavior had begun to adversely affect his social life, and my efforts to help him weren’t working. I decided to consult a behaviorist. As I was looking for one, I stumbled on an article online about the effect of artificial colors and flavors on children. A doctor in the ’70’s had discovered a link between them and ADHD symptoms and future studies had backed him up. The symptoms not only matched my sons, but the article also said that children with asthma and allergies seemed to be more strongly effected (my son has allergy-induced asthma). Eureka! I immediately removed dyes from my sons diet. His behavior was different within 1-2 weeks. It took a year and a half to figure out everything I should remove from his diet and to fully purify it (because I didn’t know what I was doing). By 1st grade my formerly hyperactive, impulsive son was sitting in the “most trusted” position in his classroom ((the only spot the teacher couldn’t see due to her computer monitor). He is at the top of his class, an advanced learner, and gets excellent behavioral reports. His asthma and allergies also improved. Our family was already eating a very healthy diet with few refined foods (by American standards) but even the limited additives my son was consuming significantly affected his behavior. I think the behaviors came and went because his consumptionwas limited. I am convinced if we had been eating the typical American diet, my sons behavior would have been off the charts and he would have been diagnosed very early on with ADHD and/or autism. Thus, I am a strong advocate for banning these additives (artificial colors, flavors, TBHQ, BHA, BHT, MSG, and the benzoates at the minimum) as well as stricter labeling laws (ex: There are huge loopholes in MSG labeling requirements). It’s time America stops poisoning its children.

    1. I rec’d a sample of dog food in the mail, it was a many colored kibble. After eating it my dog could not sit still, he ran around, jumped up and down and carried on like a crazy thing. Back on his non colored kibble and he was his old calm self. This was such a dramatic change and his diet was so controlled it showed how artificial colors can affect behavior.