Recently I’ve told you about a few food additives that are detrimental to one’s health and should be removed from your diet: high fructose corn syrup and MSG. I hope you have been reading food labels and steering clear of items with those ingredients. I have a new food additive for you to be aware of and also start removing from your diet: artificial food colorings.

Health Concerns Regarding Artificial Colorings

Listed on as one of the 12 food additives to avoid, artificial colors have been linked to many health issues:

  • Cancer and brain tumors: In fact, more than one artificial color has been banned and pulled off the market over the last several decades because it was ultimately found to cause cancer. The safety of those still allowed on the market is highly questionable.
  • Allergies, asthma, rashes: As long ago as 1985 some of the artificial colorings, especially Yellow 5, were associated with side effects such as allergies, asthma, and urticaria (hives). The connection between Yellow 5 and asthma was the reason the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first required it to be listed by name on ingredient labels. Even today some medications for asthma actually contain these colorings and other chemicals known to cause bronco-constriction.
  • ADHD, hyperactivity, and other disruptive behaviors: The effects of these artificial colorings may be more pronounced in children since they are still growing and developing and their systems may be more sensitive to the effects.

The FDA still considers these artificial colorings acceptable in food. Maybe that’s because the FDA receives compensation from the manufacturer for every pound of food dye it certifies (not inspects). (Details are in 21 CFR part 80.) This sounds like a conflict of interest in regard to the safety of these dyes.

Some groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), insist artificial food colorings aren’t safe and want them banned. In 2008, the CSPI petitioned the FDA to ban artificial food dyes linked to behavior problems.

Behavior Controversy

The issue of whether or not artificial colors contribute to behavioral problems in children has been disputed for many years. In the 1970s Dr. Ben Feingold, a San Francisco allergist, reported that his patients improved when their diets were changed (by removing syntheic dyes, artificial flavors, and several preservatives). He also noticed a marked increase in the ADD/ADHD classification after the mass introduction of food colorings into our society. Many people, including the processed-food industry, reacted to Feingold’s claim with skepticism, saying the reported successes of his diet could be due to something else, and not necessarily to the absence of certain chemicals in the food.

Newer Study Shows Link

However, a 2007 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet concluded that a variety of common artificial food colorings, as well as the preservative sodium benzoate, do cause some increased hyperactivity and decreased attention span in a wide range of children, not just those for whom over-activity has been diagnosed as a learning problem.

That study also indicated that artificial food colorings do as much damage to children’s brains as lead in gasoline, resulting in a significant reduction in IQ.

As a result of the study’s findings, the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) issued an immediate advisory to parents, warning them to limit their children’s intake of additives. Also, artificial food colorings were set to be removed from hundreds of products in the UK, as reported in 2008 in the British magazine The Independent. Not surprisingly, the U.S. has not issued any similar warnings.

What is in Artificial Food Coloring?

  • They are made from petroleum (derivatives of coal tar and petrochemicals). These chemicals are in no way made to be ingested by humans or any other animal.
  • They contain heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury. Scientists agree that there is no safe level of exposure to lead. Lead accumulates in the body from multiple exposures over time and from multiple sources. You can also view the lists for each coloring on the FDA’s website. (Just click on the numbered link to the left of the color name.)

According to toxicologist Barbara G. Callahan, PhD, DABT, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Lead exposure among children is a particular concern because their developing bodies absorb lead at a higher rate and because children are particularly sensitive to lead’s toxic effects, including decreased I.Q.” Lead exposure also represents a heightened risk among pregnant and nursing women because lead passes from the mother to the developing fetus or infant.

Why is Artificial Food Coloring Used?

Artificial food colorings provide no nutrition or benefits to the consumer; only benefits to the manufacturer.

  • They are cheaper than natural colorings and have a longer shelf life.
  • They make food brighter which makes us want to buy it.
  • They provide identity to foods.
  • They mask natural variations in color.
  • They offsett color loss due to light, air, extremes of temperature, moisture, and storage conditions.
  • They are used for decorative or artistic purposes.

Where Are Artificial Food Colorings?

They are everywhere! If you buy packaged food at mainstream grocery stores, there is a good chance there are food colorings in much of the food. They are in obvious places like candies, sodas, and many bright foods. But they are also in places you might not think about, like blueberry bagels, vitamins, and salmon.

What Should I Look For?

There are nine certified color additives approved for food use in the United States; seven for general use in food, two for exteriors of food. They are either dyes or lakes; dyes are water soluble and lakes are the water insoluble form of the dye. They will be listed on an ingredient label as follows:

  • with ‘FD&C’ preceding the color (FD&C stands for Food, Drug, and Cosmetic)
  • abbreviated, with just the color
  • the color followed by ‘Lake’ (if the lake form is used)

For example, you might see FD&C Blue #1, or just Blue 1, or Blue 1 Lake.

Here is a list of the seven current artificial food colorings as well as common places they may be found and some related health concerns :

  • Blue 1: Found in pet food, beverages, candy, baked goods, icings, and syrups. Linked to tumors, cancer, and ADHD in children. Banned in Finland and France.
  • Blue 2: Found in pet food, beverages, candy, and baked goods and linked to cancer in mice.
  • Green 3: Added to candy and beverages, this coloring has been linked to bladder cancer.
  • Red 3: Used to dye cherries, fruit cocktail, candy, and baked goods and has been shown to cause thyroid tumors in rats. Also used as a pesticide to kill flies’ eggs (maggots) in manure piles (source: US EPA).
  • Red 40: The most widely used food color; used in sweets, drinks, and condiments. Connected to cancer in mice. Banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, and Norway.
  • Yellow 5: Used in snacks, cereals, jams, instant noodle, cake mixes, and candy and causes allergic reactions, asthma attacks, migraines, blurred vision, anxiety, and behavioral problems (worsening of hyperactivity and attention-deficit) in children.
  • Yellow 6: Found in beverages, sausage, baked goods, candy, gelatin and linked to tumors of the adrenal gland and kidney. This color is banned in Norway and Sweden.

Here are the two artificial colors approved for use on the exterior of food:

  • Orange B: Used in casings or surfaces of frankfurters and sausages.
  • Citrus Red 2: Used on skins of oranges not intended for processing.

Also, watch out for carmine. Cochineal, also known as carmine, is made from dried, ground up red beetles and is used as a coloring ingredient in yogurt, ice cream, juice drinks, and many other grocery products. Obviously, it is neither vegan nor vegetarian. It has also been known to cause severe, even life-threatening, allergic reactions in rare cases. You can read government discussion about labeling foods containing carmine.

Other Products Containing Artificial Coloring:

Artificial colors aren’t just in soda and junk food. Here are a few other places to be on the lookout for artificial colorings:

  • Medications: D&C colors are permitted only in cosmetics and in medications (and given to sick children) and are often allowed to have twice the amount of lead contaminant as colorings allowed in food. Tylenol Infants’ Concentrated Drops (grape) contain D&C Red #33 and FD&C Blue #1.
  • Vitamins: Many vitamins, especially children’s vitamins, contain artificial colorings. For example, Flintstones vitamins contain Red 40, Yellow 6, and Blue 2. (They also contain aspartame.)
  • Salmon: Some farmers add red food dye to their salmon to make them appear more appetizing.
  • Cosmetic items: Shampoo, lotion, soap, chapstick, toothpaste etc. can all contain artificial colorings. For example, Johnson&Johnson Baby Shampoo contains D&C Yellow 10 and D&C Orange 4.
  • Oranges: Some manufacturers dip oranges in Citrus Red No. 2 in order to give them a brighter orange look. This is not used on oranges that are processed for juice, but on those we sit down to eat.
  • Sports drinks / Rehydration drinks: Sports drinks (like Gatorade and Powerade) are loaded with artificial colors and they have no purpose other than to make the product look more appealing. The same is true for re-hydration solutions like Pedialyte.
  • Fruit juice cocktails: Fruit punch, cocktails, and other mixture juices can have artificial colorings added. For example, Sunny Delight contains Yellow 5 and 6.
  • Cheese: Some companies add coloring to their cheese to make it brighter.

Surprise! Artificial Coloring in Foods You Wouldn’t Expect

Here are more foods that you might not think have artificial food colorings in them just by looking at them. This shows how much you really have to read the ingredient labels on everything you buy:

  • Kraft’s Guacamole Dip gets its greenish color not from avocados (there are almost none) but from Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Blue 1. (It also contains MSG, partially hydrogenated oils, and sodium benzoate, among others.)
  • Kraft Macaroni and Cheese contains Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.
  • The blue bits in Aunt Jemima Blueberry Waffles are blue thanks to Red 40 and Blue 2, not real blueberries.
  • Girl Scout Cookies don’t outwardly seem like they would have artificial colorings in them, but several of the cookies do indeed contain artificial colorings. Caramel deLites and Peanut Butter Patties each contain Red 40, Yellow 5, Blue 1, and Blue 2.

Gone From the U.K. But Good for the U.S.?

The CSPI reports that many big companies sell different versions of foods in the United Kingdom with natural food colorings, while in the United States they contain artificial coloring. For example:

  • Mars has eliminated some or all of the dyes from its Starburst Chews, Skittles, and M&M’S candies in Britain, but not in the United States.
  • In the UK, McDonald’s strawberry sauce for sundaes are colored with actual strawberries; however in the United States, the same strawberry sauce is colored with Red 40.

My Thoughts

Some children have strong reactions to artificial colorings and others not at all, indicating there are individual differences in how well your body can tolerate the assault of artificial additives. One theory is that the additives may trigger a release of histamines in certain sensitive kids.

Regardless, I believe that artificial colorings (as well as other food additives such as preservatives and sweeteners) should be avoided as much as possible, especially with children, regardless of whether they have an obvious effect or not. They have no nutritional value and can carry long-term health risks. Really, it’s an easy step to take. It may mean a bit more effort on your part to shop for better options, but isn’t your health worth it?

Even if you think a little can’t hurt, what are the possibilities for exposure in any given day? For example, is your child drinking a sports drink or a fruit juice with coloring? Does their antibiotic contain coloring? What about the macaroni and cheese you made for dinner last night? What are the cumulative effects of this exposure? Are you willing to take that risk?

What Now?

Start reading the ingredients labels on everything you buy, and start saying NO to anything with artificial colorings. Soon I will have a follow-up article showing you how to avoid products with artificial coloring, alternatives for different items and events, where to buy natural food coloring, and even how to make your own!

As always, let me know if you have any comments or questions!

More Information:

Wendy –

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