Food Dyes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Posted June 6, 2014 | kids, Nutrition & Health Tips

By Adriane Angarano, MS, CN

The color of our food plays an important role in how we taste and perceive food. Adding color to food to enhance its appearance has been done for a millennia. The Ancient Romans and Egyptians used natural colorings from plant and mineral sources such as paprika, turmeric, saffron, gold leaf, and copper sulfate.In the 1800s metals and minerals such as copper (shades of green), iron (shades of red), arsenic (part of Prussian Blue), gypsum (yellow), mercury (vermillion red), and coal tar were used in a variety of food processing- preserving pickles, making candy, baking cakes, and steeping tea.

Around that same time English chemist Friedrich Accum released Treatise on Adulteration of Food that listed numerous examples of foods containing poisonous dyes and chemicals that disguised the true nature of the product. This publication was the beginning of the understanding and need for food safety legislation. It wasn’t until 1938 that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed the first version of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which included an entire section on the regulation of color additives.

What’s the difference?

The two types of approved color additives in the United States are dyes and lakes. Dyes are water-soluble and lakes are fat-soluble. Dyes are not pure chemicals and contain a mixture of organic and inorganic compounds. Being chemically synthesized, dyes and lakes are easier to produce, achieve superior and uniform color properties, and cost much less than natural colorings.

Impact on health

These compounds do not add to the nutritional quality of foods and have been shown to be toxic and raise health concerns. Artificial coloring can be a source of phenols, which if you have difficulty processing can lead to negative behaviors. Lakes are a source of aluminum exposure that can contribute to the oxidative burden in the body. Many dyes have been shown to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing), genotoxic (damaging to chromosomes), and neurotoxic (damage to brain).

Why still add dyes?

  • To add color to a colorless food or beverage
  • To enhance existing natural colors
  • To avoid color loss during manufacturing
  • To provide consistency when there are natural color variations in the food
  • For aesthetic purposes to attract consumers

The Bad

The FDA has reported a significant five-fold increase in consumption of dyes since 1955. Just three dyes – Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6—account for 90% of all dyes used and all have been shown to increase risk for cancer, allergies and sensitivities, and hyperactivity or ADHD. Here are the names of the FDA-approved food colorings:

  • Blue 1- Brilliant Blue
  • Blue 2- Indigo Carmine
  • Citrus Red 2
  • Green 3- Fast Green
  • Red 3- Erythrosine
  • Red 40- Allura Red
  • Yellow 5- Tartrazine
  • Yellow 6- Sunset Yellow

These colors can be found in many common items, especially refined and processed foods:

  • Soft Drinks
  • Juice Box
  • Chewing Gum
  • Hard Candies
  • Gummy Candy
  • Popsicles
  • Ice Cream
  • Cake & Frosting
  • Baked goods
  • Breakfast Cereal
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese Puffs
  • Macaroni & Cheese
  • Salad Dressing
  • Toothpaste
  • Medications

 

The Good

Luckily there are plenty of natural alternatives to synthetic coloring. Using juices and powders from real foods can achieve a specific color and will ensure a chemical-free result:

  • Red: pomegranate, beetroot
  • Orange: pumpkin, carrot
  • Yellow: turmeric powder, yellow carrots, saffron, paprika
  • Green: spinach, parsley, spirulina powder, wheatgrass
  • Blue: blueberries, red cabbage
  • Purple: red cabbage, grapes
  • Pink: raspberries, beetroot, cranberry
  • Brown: coffee/espresso, cocoa powder

If you are interested in reading more about risks of consuming food dyes, please see the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s publication A Rainbow of Risks

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