Food dyes are a seemingly innocent ingredient most people consume daily without even realizing. They’re obvious to spot in rainbow-colored candies, jellos and frostings, but unfortunately, they’re much more common than most people realize. They’re
often in everyday items like pickles, breads, salad dressings, yogurt, applesauce, drinks and more. Without consciously avoiding them, you can be certain you’re ingesting a significant amount if you eat anything close to a standard American diet.
You might be wondering: is this something to be concerned about? If these food dye additives are approved by the FDA, surely they must be safe?
Though it would be wonderful if we could rely on the safety of FDA approved substances, this is most definitely not the case. The US has extremely lax health and safety regulations compared to most other countries, and we pay the price for it in our staggering number of diet and lifestyle related illnesses.
There’s a long dirty history of harmful substances being pushed onto the public until the overwhelming health effects are just too blatantly obvious to ignore. We could delve into the reasons behind this, but essentially, the most important thing to understand is that profits come before health concerns for the vast majority of food companies.
Food dyes are a prime example of this. They’re a profitable way to make food products more appealing, and they’ll continue to be used until the public outcry of their very much scientifically proven health risks are loud enough. In the meantime, here are the facts on artificial food dyes to enable you to make informed decisions for the wellbeing of yourself and your loved ones.
Food Dye History
Food dyes have been around for quite some time. Before the advent of synthetic dyes, humans used to color their foods with natural substances such as plant pigments and minerals. This was costly and time consuming, so in 1856, William Henry Perkin created the first ever synthetic dye which was used in both food and cosmetics.
Within a few short years, using artificial coloring in food was a common practice. These earliest versions of food dyes were even more harmful than modern versions since they often contained dangerous elements like lead, arsenic and mercury.
It wasn’t until 1938 when the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was put forward by the FDA that the first safety regulations were enforced to remove these highly toxic substances. The act also made it essential to certify and name food coloring agents, and many of these first certified food dyes are still used today.
Food dyes grew significantly in popularity after the 1950s and have shown no signs of stopping since. The amount of artificial colorings has increased by 500% in the past few decades alone.
What Are The Health Risks of Artificial Food Dyes?
The fact that food dyes are now regulated can give consumers a false sense of security. Though currently regulated food dyes are less toxic than the first completely unregulated iterations, they still have many insidious health risks that can lead to serious illness, decreased immune function, inflammation, psychological hypersensitivity and more.
The FDA has 36 approved food dyes, and of these 36, 9 are highly concerning synthetic additives. The synthetic dyes are called: Blue 1 (Brilliant Blue), Blue 2 (Indigo Carmine), Citrus Red 2, Green 3 (Fast Green FCF), Orange B (No longer used in the U.S.), Red 3 (Erythrosine), Red 40 (Allura Red), Yellow 5 (Tartrazine) and Yellow 6 (Sunset Yellow).
There are concerns for all 9 of these additives, but Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 are arguably the most harmful. They all contain benzidene which is a known human and animal carcinogen. These 3 colors must carry a warning label on any food product containing them in the EU, and they’re completely banned in infant food products as well as in Norway and Austria.
Most of the evidence on food dye risks have been done on animals since human testing is highly unethical. Though this isn’t enough evidence to directly say they have the exact same effect on humans, it’s more than enough reason to be concerned and infer humans effects could be similar.
Here is a brief overview of some concerning findings on the 9 FDA approved synthetic food dyes.
Blue 1: Shown to cause kidney tumors in mice.
Blue 2: Significantly increases incidence of brain gliomas in rats.
Citrus Red 2: Toxic to rodents and can cause urinary bladder tumors.
Green 3: Shown to increase bladder and testis tumors in male rats.
Red 3: Shown to be a thyroid carcinogen in animals.
Red 40: Likely increases immune system tumors in mice and can cause hyperactivity in children.
Yellow 5: Can be contaminated with other cancer-causing substances and is thought to contribute to behavioral issues in children.
Yellow 6: May cause adrenal tumors in animals. May also contribute to organ damage, cancer, birth defects and allergic reactions.
If this isn’t enough evidence, it’s also apparent that combinations of several different artificial food dyes consumed consistently can cause even further damaging effects. They can impact the function of the liver, interfere with normal digestion and nutrient absorption, and negatively impact nerve cell development.
How to Avoid Artificial Food Dyes
Food dyes are thankfully always listed on ingredient labels, so it is entirely possible to avoid them with a bit of diligence. They’re extremely common in colorful foods catered to children such as cereals, snack bars, baked goods and candy. It would be best to always check the ingredients before purchasing these items and to be particularly mindful of avoiding Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.
In addition to this, checking items such as packaged instant oatmeal, microwave popcorn, teas, popsicles and syrups is wise. There are almost always natural alternatives to artificial dyes that can be found in stores, and there are plenty of ways to add color to homemade foods at home using natural substances that don’t harm health.
Overall, the consensus is clear that sticking to whole foods, homemade when possible, and natural ingredients is the best way to go for overall health and safety. Though it can be a pain to examine every product you buy, the long-term payoff of avoiding dangerous substances is more than worth it.