How Worried Should We Be About Artificial Food Dye? Here’s What Science Has (And Hasn’t) Confirmed.

How worried should you be about your Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?

A lawmaker in California recently unveiled a proposal to ban foods from schools if they contain artificial dyes, including Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, as well as titanium dioxide. This could apply to sports drinks, breakfast cereals, chips and candy. Separately, California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a law banning the sale of foods and drinks with certain ingredients, including Red No. 3.

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for performing safety checks and issuing guidance for food manufacturers on which dyes are and aren’t safe for consumption. Though experts say that food dye use is generally safe, there’s growing concern about consuming the colorings. Outside of the U.S., for example, further measures have been implemented. The Guardian reported that in the European Union and the United Kingdom, “food containing synthetic dyes must carry warning labels indicating the ingredients ‘may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.’”

“The use of dyes and colorants in food is not new or a secret in the industry; however, consumers still do not know the extent of their use,” Trevor Craig, corporate director of technical training and consulting at Microbac Laboratories, told HuffPost. “Many studies have shown dyes are safe for consumption, and those with negative results are typically banned.”

Still, some studies have linked synthetic food dyes to health issues, such as hyperactivity in children and cancer. And people want to know where their food comes from.

“Since food and food coloring are widely consumed, understanding their role, if any, in these public health concerns is of interest,” said Bryan Hitchcock, chief science and technology officer at the Institute of Food Technologists.

“The vast majority of safety data in this area indicates low risk for the broad population.”

What are artificial food dyes made of?

Color additives have been used in foods for millennia. Ancient peoples used coloring from paprika, turmeric, saffron, iron, lead oxides and other sources in food, drugs, cosmetics and wine, according to the FDA.

The first synthetic organic dye, mauve, was discovered in 1856, and similar artificial dyes were soon used in foods. The federal government began overseeing color additives in the 1880s. Butter and cheese were among the first foods authorized to include artificial coloring.

Many of the food dyes used today have been approved for decades, Hitchcock said.

“The U.S. has a strong regulatory framework in place to evaluate and ensure the safety of all these ingredients, including FDA-certified food dyes,” he explained. “While the FDA is continuing to improve the framework, consumers should feel confident that the U.S. food supply is safe.”

Artificial food dyes are in many of the foods we eat every day.

Michelle O’Kane via Getty Images

Artificial food dyes are in many of the foods we eat every day.

What are the most common food colorings?

The FDA classifies its permitted food color additives as “certified” or “exempt.” Both groups “must meet the same safety standard prior to their approval for use in foods,” the agency says.

The “exempt from certification” category is used for dyes and pigments from natural sources, like vegetables, minerals or animals. For example, beta carotene is used for yellow or orange coloring, dehydrated beets for bluish-red or brown, and annatto extract, from the seeds of the achiote plant, for yellow.

“Certified color additives” are synthetically made and used to “impart an intense, uniform color,” according to the FDA. They’re usually less expensive than natural colorings.

Here are the color additives currently approved for use in foods:

  • Blue No. 1, used in beverages, icing, frosting, cereal and frozen treats, like popsicles.
  • Blue No. 2, used in baked goods, cereal, yogurt, ice cream and snack foods.
  • Green No. 3, used in drink mixers, baked goods, cereal, sherbet and ice cream.
  • Red No. 3, used in confections, beverages, cereal, frozen dairy desserts, popsicles, frosting, icing and ice cream cones.
  • Red No. 40, used in cereal, beverages, gelatin, pudding, dairy products and confections.
  • Yellow No. 5, used in condiments, baked goods, yogurt, cereal, snack foods, beverages and confections.
  • Yellow No. 6, used in cereal, snack foods, baked goods, gelatin, dessert powders, crackers, sauces and beverages.

A couple of others are approved for specific uses. Orange B is only approved for hot dog and sausage casings, and Citrus Red No. 2 for coloring orange peels.

The FDA also maintains online lists of color additives that are no longer authorized or that have been restricted.

Are food color additives safe?

For decades, researchers have been studying the connection between food colors and hyperactivity in children, according to the International Food Information Council. While some research has shown that eliminating artificial food dyes from their diets improved symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the results have been mixed in other findings.

“Although [food dyes] could have potential risks for children, the studies indicate that sensitivity varies, with specific groups facing higher risks due to increased exposure,” Craig said, adding that more updated research is needed on the subject.

It’s also been suggested that some food dyes cause cancer, but most research on the topic has used animal subjects, and the evidence is inconclusive. However, Red 3 has been shown to increase the risk of thyroid tumors in rats—and the FDA banned the dye in 1990 from use in cosmetics and externally applied drugs. However, the dye is still used in foods like some candy and popsicles, but it’s required to be listed on food labels.

“In light of ongoing public health concerns such as cancer, childhood development and more, there is significant research interest in understanding causes,” Hitchcock said. “Exploring potential causes involves looking at repetitive exposure to various substances from the environment we live in.”

Food dyes could pose a health risk to certain subpopulations, he said, but more research is needed to learn about exposure levels that pose the greatest threat. For most people, the risk is low, especially when colorings are consumed as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Another potential health issue connected to dyes is their frequent use in ultra-processed foods, like soft drinks, sweets and snack foods, Craig noted. These foods have been linked to dozens of health conditions, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and mental health disorders, according to recent research published in The BMJ.

Should you worry about consuming food dyes?

“Certainly, some dyes have been shown to be harmful, but that doesn’t mean all dyes are,” Craig said.

The FDA maintains a list of approved (and not approved) ingredients, as well as their safety, he added. And in addition to performing safety checks, it issues guidance for food manufacturers on distribution, processing, ingredients and more.

Food dyes remain safe for most people, Craig said. Many chemicals are hazardous when consumed in high concentrations, but color additives are typically consumed in small quantities.

Laws on food safety are science-based and consumer-informed to ensure that the food supply is safe, Hitchcock added. “This includes approving new ingredients, monitoring existing ingredients and banning ingredients with an unacceptable risk,” he said.

Still, “it’s great that people are asking questions and seeking a deeper understanding” about the composition and sourcing of their food, he noted.

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