Artificial colorings (synthetic food dyes)
Chemical Cuisine Rating
Health Concerns: Cancer
Found in: Foods of low nutritional value, candy, soft drinks, gelatin desserts
Most artificially colored foods are colored with synthetic petroleum-based chemicals—called dyes—that do not occur in nature. Because food dyes are used almost solely in foods of low nutritional value (candy, soft drinks, gelatin desserts, etc.), a good rule of thumb is simply avoid all dyed foods. (You may also see the term “lake” on the label—avoid those too. That is the technical term for the water-insoluble form of a dye, often used in fatty foods and low-moisture foods.) In addition to problems mentioned below, synthetic food dyes cause hyperactivity in some sensitive children. You can report adverse reactions to food dyes to www.cspi.net/fooddyes.
Some foods are artificially colored with natural substances, such as beta-carotene or carmine. Just because they are natural does not mean that they are entirely safe. Carmine, for example, can cause severe allergic reactions. Please see their entries in the alphabetical listing.
The use of colorings, be they natural or synthetic, usually indicates that a natural ingredient is not used.
Artificial Coloring: Beverages, candy, baked goods.
One (unpublished) animal test suggested a small cancer risk, and a test-tube study indicated the dye might affect neurons. It also causes occasional allergic reactions. Blue 1 might be safe for people who are not allergic, but it should be better tested.
Artificial Coloring: Pet food, beverages, candy.
Animal studies found some—but not conclusive—evidence that Blue 2 causes brain cancer in male rats, but the Food and Drug Administration concluded that there is "reasonable certainty of no harm.
Citrus red 2
Artificial Coloring: Skin of some Florida oranges only.
The amounts of this rarely used dye that one might consume, even from eating marmalade, are so small that the risk is not worth worrying about.
Artificial Coloring: Candy, beverages.
A 1981 industry-sponsored study gave hints of bladder and testes tumors in male rats, but FDA re-analyzed the data using other statistical tests and concluded that the dye was safe. Fortunately, this possibly carcinogenic dye is not widely used.
Artificial Coloring: Sausage.
Approved for use only in sausage casings, high doses of this dye are harmful to the liver and bile duct. However, that is not worrisome because Orange B has not been used for many years.
Artificial Coloring: Candy, baked goods.
The evidence that this dye caused thyroid tumors in rats is "convincing," according to a 1983 review committee report requested by FDA. FDA's recommendation that the dye be banned was overruled by pressure from the cherry industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Red 3 used to color maraschino cherries, but it has been replaced there by the less controversial Red 40 dye. It is still used in a smattering of foods ranging from cake icing to fruit roll-ups to chewing gum.
In October 2022, CSPI and 23 other organizations and prominent scientists urged the Food and Drug Administration to formally remove Red 3 from the list of approved color additives in foods, dietary supplements, and oral medicines.
Artificial Coloring: Soda pop, candy, gelatin desserts, pastries, pet food, sausage.
The most widely used food dye. While this is one of the most-tested food dyes, the key mouse tests were flawed and inconclusive. An FDA review committee acknowledged problems, but said evidence of harm was not "consistent" or "substantial." Red 40 can cause allergy-like reactions. Like other dyes, Red 40 is used mainly in junk foods.
Artificial Coloring: Gelatin dessert, candy, pet food, baked goods.
The second-most-widely used coloring causes allergy-like hypersensitivity reactions, primarily in aspirin-sensitive persons, and triggers hyperactivity in some children. It may be contaminated with such cancer-causing substances as benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl (or chemicals that the body converts to those substances).
Artificial Coloring: Beverages, candy, baked goods.
Industry-sponsored animal tests indicated that this dye, the third-most-widely-used, causes tumors of the adrenal gland and kidney. In addition, small amounts of several carcinogens, such as 4-aminobiphenyl and benzidine (or chemicals that the body converts to those substances), contaminate Yellow 6. However, the FDA reviewed those data and found reasons to conclude that Yellow 6 does not pose a significant cancer risk to humans. Yellow 6 may cause occasional, but sometimes-severe, hypersensitivity reactions.
See our comprehensive Chemical Cuisine ratings of more than 150 food ingredients and additives.
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