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  • Writer's pictureLiz Hoobchaak

The Unfortunate Truth About Food Dyes

I was recently paging through a popular magazine and I saw a recipe for Fruit Loop Donuts. It was being advertised as a great breakfast on-the-go or a snack that you can take with you to work to help give you an afternoon energy burst. Not only was the recipe ingredient list loaded with unrefined white flour, added sugar and food dye, but the fruit loops themselves used to make the donut dough have an ingredient list that is full of awful substances. With all the known research out there about the possible harmful effects of consuming food dye, I was shocked to see this as one of their featured recipes in their magazine.

What Exactly Is Artificial Food Coloring?

Let’s take a quick dive into what we know about artificial food coloring. Food dyes are synthetic preservatives used to color food. They used to be synthesized from coal tar but are now manufactured from petroleum. Petroleum is a crude oil product, which is commonly used to also make gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt and plastic. Sounds appetizing, right?


The use of artificial food dye has been steadily increasing over the years. Within the past 50 years, the amount of synthetic dye used in foods has increased by 500%!


Food dyes are most commonly found in food targeted toward children. They are often labeled as a color followed by a number. For example, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 are all common food dyes found on grocery store shelves. They do not enhance the flavor or texture of the food, nor do they add any nutritional benefit. Food dyes purely give food more color to make it more appealing to consumers, especially to children.

Companies use food dyes because they are cheaper than the healthier alternative of using real food to color their product, and they give the product a longer shelf life. Artificial dyes are usually found in many popular cereals, crackers, soda, sports drinks, condiments, yogurts, candy, baked goods, popsicles and even in over the counter medications and vitamins.

What Harmful Effects Do Artificial Dyes Have On Our Health?

While all the artificial dyes have raised significant health concerns, Red 40, in particular, has been shown to be linked to many possible health issues including development of cancerous tumors, allergies, infertility, changes in our DNA and cellular development, as well as a trigger for ADHD and Irritable Bowel Disease.

One of the things that makes red dye so harmful is benzidine, a cancer-causing chemical found among its ingredients. This is the ingredient responsible for the red stain left on your tongue after eating a red lollipop. Just like any other food, your body needs to break down this dye when ingested. As it does, it releases this carcinogenic ingredient into your system. The release of these cancer causing ingredients in food dye results in abnormal body processes throughout our body often leading to illness.

Immune System Functioning

Artificial dyes increase inflammation and disrupt the functioning of our immune system. The molecules of synthetic colorants are small, and the immune system finds it difficult to defend the body against them. The molecules are able to attach to proteins in our body, thus are able to act in stealth mode to circumvent and disrupt the immune system. Consuming these particles activates the inflammatory response in our body, which leads to a cascade of events including increased intestinal permeability which then may lead to cancer, autoimmunities and neurobehavioral disorders.

During holiday seasons, such as Halloween, where food dye is more commonly present in our diet, our body is having to process higher levels of these carcinogens which is very taxing on our immune system. It may lead our bodies to become more run down and susceptible to viruses and infections, such as the flu and common cold.

Behavior Issues in Children

The effects of artificial food coloring on children’s behavior has been studied for more than 35 years, with accumulating evidence from many studies. Red 40 has been shown to trigger hypersensitivity in children. Yellow 5 has also been linked to hyperactivity, hypersensitivity and other unfavorable behavioral effects in children. Studies have shown that the elimination of artificial food dyes from children’s diets may help to reduce symptoms of attention-related disorders and other behavior problems in children.


One study showed that 73% of children (19 out of 26) with ADHD showed a decrease in symptoms when the dyes and additives in their diet were eliminated!


Gut Health

New research has been raising concerns that consuming food dye can be a trigger for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Although the exact cause of IBD is not fully understood, studies have shown that changes to the gut microbiota are one of the main triggers. It is believed that exposure to synthetic food dyes are harmful to the gut and promote inflammation. The dye has been shown to directly disrupt the intestinal barrier and change the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone / neurotransmitter found in the gut and this change in production has been shown to alter the gut microbiome composition which leads to increased susceptibility to colitis, or inflammation in the colon.

What Can We Do?

To reduce your risk of exposure to Red 40, make sure you read the ingredient labels of all commercially bought foods you consume. Food dyes are often hidden in products that aren’t even colorful in nature. It may be lurking in your box of crackers or your salad dressing. Opt to buy a product that uses natural fruits and vegetables for color, or better yet, consider making your own recipes using natural food coloring such as beet juice, cherries or cranberries.

The FDA has been pressured for years to ban Red 40 in commercially prepared foods by different groups that have opposed the use of synthetics due to these health concerns. Currently, this dye is banned in Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and Norway. If it is used in any product within the European Union, it must have a warning label that says that it “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

Due to these required labels, many European companies have decreased the use of artificial dyes in their products. For example, in the US, McDonalds colors their strawberry shake with Red 40. In the UK, they use real strawberries for color. If you look at an ingredient list for Fruit Loops in a European store, you will not see food dye. Instead, their colorful cereal is colored naturally with beets, turmeric and spinach.


So if these ingredients are banned in other countries due to harmful effects, why do they continue to be allowed in our food?


If we want to see more companies opting out of using food dye in our country, we must stop buying products that contain these harmful ingredients. Vote with your money and companies will be forced to adjust their ingredient list and remove these toxic substances. Companies that continue to allow these dangerous food dyes in our food despite all the warnings care mostly about their bottom line, not our health. It is up to us to choose real, whole foods that do not contain these artificial man-made ingredients.

Remember, what we put in our bodies has a huge impact on our cells, which in turn affects our overall health and wellbeing. Do yourself a favor and choose to put only healthy, natural colored foods into your body!

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