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Pink, blue, yellow, green, purple… these Easter tones are fun and festive for the springtime holiday. But this year, try keeping these colors restricted to cheerful decorations—and out of your family’s food. If you’ve ever wondered, “is food coloring safe?” you were right to be concerned. Artificial food dyes carry numerous health risks; there are links between food dye and ADHD, allergies, and more.
Food Dyes Contain Carcinogens
Many artificial food dyes contain known human and animal carcinogens. For example, one carcinogen called benzidene is found in the food dyes Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which account for around 90 percent of dyes being used. Although benzidene is regulated, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s tests may be underestimating our exposure to this toxic compound.[1,2] Caramel colorings containing 2- and 4-methylimidazoles induce cancer in animals as well. Tartrazine, a yellow “azo” dye (found in Yellow 5) is genotoxic, meaning it binds to DNA and causes damage.
Effects on the Immune System and Allergies
Small molecules make up the dyes that are used in food colorings. These molecules can bind to proteins in food or in the body after metabolism. In some cases, our bodies develop immune responses to the proteins that have been bound with food colorings, causing intolerances, hypersensitivity reactions, and allergies.[1,5]
Allura red (Red 40), tartrazine, and other dyes have been associated with conditions like atopic dermatitis, eczema, allergic rhinitis, food allergies, food intolerances, and more.[5,6] Tartrazine can trigger asthma attacks and atopic dermatitis symptoms.
Hyperactivity, Food Dye, and ADHD
There has been a longstanding debate over whether or not food additives like food dye contribute to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but a large body of evidence supports the link, showing that kids with ADHD are sensitive to these foods.[2,6-8] A large meta-analysis found that artificial food color consumption promoted hyperactivity in hyperactive children.
Other researchers suggest that food dyes affect all children, regardless of whether or not they have an ADHD diagnosis, concluding that artificial food colorings “appear to be more of a public health problem than an ADHD problem.” As of July 2010, foods containing artificial dyes in Europe had to carry a warning that they cause hyperactivity in children, but these same regulations have not yet been set in the US. (In 2017, Senator Bob Wieckowski of California introduced a bill requiring warning labels on food containing artificial colors in his state.)
The Bottom Line: Is Food Coloring Safe, or Is It a Harmful Additive?
The list of harmful effects of food dyes goes on, with evidence showing that they interfere with digestive enzymes, enhance intestinal permeability, promote liver toxicity, and more. One study summed up the problem with food dyes by stating, “The inadequacy of much of the testing and the evidence for carcinogenicity, genotoxicity, and hypersensitivity, coupled with the fact that dyes do not improve the safety or nutritional quality of foods, indicates that all of the currently used dyes should be removed from the food supply and replaced, if at all, by safer colorings.”
How to Avoid Food Dyes
There are foods that are obviously dyed, such as frosting, sprinkles, soda, and most of those cute Easter-themed treats you see filling the grocery store this time of year. But if you want to completely avoid artificial dyes, you’ll have to look a bit closer, reading labels carefully. Juice often contains dye, pre-prepared meals can be dyed to look more appetizing, and even white products can be dyed to look even whiter (like white cake frosting). Food dyes also can be present in personal care products like toothpaste, mouthwash, and medications, too.[9,10]
Avoid products that say, “Color added.” And keep an eye out for the most harmful dyes—Red 40, Yellow 5 (tartrazine), and Yellow 6.
Artificial dyes are more appealing for commercial use because they are more stable, last longer, and cost less. Natural colors from all-natural pigments like anthocyanins (found in berries, red cabbage, and eggplant) and carotenes (found in carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash) fade during processing.
But these natural colors make great dyes for homemade treats that are far healthier for your family than what you can find in the grocery store. Try blueberry or grape for the color purple, beet juice for red, turmeric for yellow, or a variety of other homemade natural food colorings.
Have a Healthier Easter This Year
If you have young children or grandchildren, remove artificially dyed treats—as well as those laden with sugar, preservatives, and other unhealthy ingredients—from their Easter baskets. For ideas on how to make a healthier Easter basket, please visit our post “Healthy Easter Treats for Kids,” and try our recipe for the nutritious and festive Crisped Rice Bird Nests.
Share Your Experience
Have you ever experimented with natural food dyes? Share your tips in the Comments section below.
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Originally published in 2015, this post is regularly updated.