Keep an EYE out for Artificial Food Dyes {GUEST POST}

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This is an {amazing} guest post from Jennifer Rees. It’s very related to our Monday Mission for this week, coming after lunch.

Although devoid of any nutritional benefit, food dyes are used to make oranges look fresh longer; to make candy look like oranges, and to make medicine taste like candy. The Food and Drug Administration, the agency responsible for regulating and approving food dyes, {somewhat disturbingly} explains their existence this way:

Color additives are used in foods for many reasons: 1) to offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions; 2) to correct natural variations in color; 3) to enhance colors that occur naturally; and 4) to provide color to colorless and “fun” foods. Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green.

Can you imagine the horror? (top photo source)

How are artificial food dyes typically used?

Red #40, Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 account for 90% of all food dyes used today.

  • Red No. 40 "Allura Red" Found in cereal, gelatin, candy, baked goods.
  • Yellow No. 5 "Tartrazine" Found in soft drinks, pudding, chips, pickles, honey, mustard, gum, baked goods, gelatin and other foods.
    • Katie sticking her nose in…mustard? I was just sitting at breakfast yesterday wondering if it was possible for mustard to be THAT yellow without dyes. Are artificial colors going to be hidden in "natural flavorings" or "spices"? I don’t think Leah and I would survive 40 days without it…I may have to learn to make mustard!
  • Yellow No. 6 "Sunset Yellow" Found in cereal, orange soda and other beverages, hot chocolate mix, baked goods and many other foods.

The other 10% include Red No. 3 "Erythrosine B" Found in candy, popsicles, cake decoration and other baked goods, maraschino cherries, Blue No. 1 "Brilliant Blue" Found in ice cream, canned peas, candy, drinks, dessert powders, mouthwash, Blue No. 2 "Indigotine or Indigo Carmine" Widely used to color beverages, candy and other foods, Green No. 3 "Fast Green or FCF" Found in canned peas, vegetables, fish, desserts, cotton candy and other candy.

Another artificial food dye, caramel coloring, is problematic for two reasons.

First, it sounds innocent, as if it were made from caramel but it’s not.  Some methods of its production are safe but others use proven carcinogens.  Sadly, consumers have no way of knowing.  It is all simply labeled "caramel coloring".

How do I know if I am eating artificial food dyes?

Food labeling can be a shell game; re-naming ingredients to sound more palatable and less harmful.  Labelwatch can help to decipher; but processed food loses its convenience when the amount of detective work to uncover what you are eating surpasses the amount of time it takes to make the food yourself.

Why should I avoid artificial food dyes?

Some food dyes cause allergic reactions in people.  Kelly Dorfman, author of What’s Eating Your Child? {an author I learned about right here on Kitchen Stewardship}, suggests eliminating food dyes if your child has a persistent skin rash that is not responding to other treatment.

Here are notes from a talk and an interview with Kelly Dorfman

In the 1970’s, a diet created by allergist Sam Feingold eliminated food dyes (and other synthetic food additives) and gained the attention of many parents who saw dramatic differences in their ADD and ADHD children after following the diet.  The Feingold diet has also been successful in improving conditions like Autism, OCD, Asthma, as well as neuromuscular and cognitive problems which we recognize today as Sensory Processing Disorder.

And if you don’t fall into any of those categories; a scientist on the FDA Food Advisory Committee charged with evaluating the evidence connecting artificial food dyes and behavior problems made an unarguable point:

Synthetic food dyes have no nutritional value benefits… they’re used primarily to trick people into thinking that a food contains fruit or other valuable ingredients. Dyes would not be missed in the food supply, except by the dye manufacturers.

If food dyes are so dangerous, why doesn’t the Food and Drug Administration ban their usage?

There are a lot of answers to that question, but in general, the FDA does not exactly busy itself with banning substances. The last time they banned a food substance was over twenty years ago.

In 2010 the US Government Accountability Office recommended that the FDA tighten up how it evaluates GRAS or ‘generally recognized as safe’ substances in our food.  They made five suggestions, none of which have been acted upon.  The GAO’s recommendations are prudent; a quick review of food additives {the ones in italics are banned, everything else is approved} should be enough to scare anyone.  You’ll see right away that this is a world where gentian violet is a problem child but formaldehyde is a star student.

If your child reacts negatively to ingesting food dyes, here is how to let the FDA know

I have a vision.  In that vision, the day after Halloween 2012 the FDA phone lines are flooded with calls from parents, reporting that their children are out of control and behaving abnormally.  Could it be a tainted batch of candy? Well, kind of. Tainted, yes but not by a manufacturing error or evil candy poisoner.  Tainted with food dyes!

The United Kingdom has severely limited the usage of artificial food dyes.  Some food producers in the US actually make one product with artificial food dyes for Americans and Canadians, and the same product without them for Europeans.

Are ‘natural’ food dyes OK?

With regards to the causing adverse behavior, yes.  But do you really want to eat an unmentionable part of a beaver or a whale?  It’s harder to know if you are eating ‘natural’ food dyes, because the labeling requirements are different. A food labeled "All natural" doesn’t mean ‘in its natural state’.  It may be extruded, processed, and dyed; but done so using processes and substances the FDA has approved as an acceptable ‘natural’ substance for labeling purposes.

You may also be consuming a Cochineal Insect in your natural food coloring, called crimson lake, natural red #4, cochineal or carmine.  In addition to being kind of, well, yucky; these beetles cause allergic reactions in some people. 

Additionally, annatto is often regarded as one of the safer food colorings and is most often found in cheese. It creates a yellow or orange color and  is created using the seeds of a tropical shrub which causes an allergic reaction in some people. While both of these substances have been used at different times in history by humans as a dye; it was for fabrics or paint.  Not as food.

Giving up food dyes for Lent is a wonderful decision, but not because it is a sacrifice.  Artificial food dyes are not created by God.  He gave us five senses, and when we eat food designed to ‘trick’ our senses into believing something is fresh when it is not, healthy when it is harmful the effects are devastating. Accepting what He has provided for us; knowing it’s truth and rejoicing in it; whether it is food, or anything else in our life – isn’t that the goal?

Watch KS later today for a new challenge:


And be sure to visit Jennifer at "her house" to learn about how she discovered her son’s sensory processing disorder recently and what she’s doing about it…

imageJennifer Rees is the author of The UnProcessed Kitchen, a blog dedicated to finding the best possible diet for kids with Sensory Processing Disorder.  She shares wonderful recipes along with kitchen disasters and an occasional tirade against food dyes. Jennifer also authors BigBinder, a blog for parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan encouraging them to engage in cultural, culinary, and fun activities and events with their kids. She is also the Michigan Mom for Reach Jennifer by email at [email protected], and she can almost always be found on Twitter @bigbinderblog.

Click here for my disclaimer and advertising disclosure - affiliate links in this post will earn commission based on sales, but it doesn't change your price.

38 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. says

    Katie with the mustard – I think you are OK :) Artificial food dyes do need to be listed, but look for the names (sunset yellow, tartrazine) to make sure they aren’t on the ingredient list!

    God gave us some AMAZING colors; I made cherry muffins last night (no food dyes of course) and thought “that color red looks artificial” – but it’s just the beautiful color of the cooked cherries :)

  2. Kayla says

    I guess i’m missing the point. I don’t really see what the problem is? I’ve met people that were allergic to artificial colors, but I’ve also met people that were allergic to peanuts, strawberries, and eggs. I’m already checking labels for artificial sweeteners, preservatives, hydrogenated oils, etc. I don’t think i’m going to become a huge stickler for artificial colors because they “might” make my son behave differently.

    Thanks for the article though!

    • Katie says

      I can’t say I’m positive it’s important either…but keep reading the next few weeks to explore the topic with us! :) Katie

    • lizi says

      i don’t care if there is a positive link between food dyes and hyperactivity, there is no way i am putting chemicals like that in mine or my kids’ bodies, period. it is just unnatural, and Lord only knows what else is in them. i thought i remember reading that certain blue and red dyes contained aluminum (neurotoxin linked to alzheimer’s, etc). seems liuke all these industrially produced additives have all sorts of contaminants in them, not like they are exactly high quality ingredients here. these companies produce them to make a profit, as cheap as can be, and i don’t feel the least bit confident that they are all that tight on what makes it into them.
      either way, i am not going to gamble on it.
      especially since pretty much everything you see artificial colors in isn’t healthy to begin with. but as for me and my house, we eat food that is all natural, and anything that could possibly have artificial colors in it certainly would not come close to fitting that bill. no thanks!!

    • Markey says

      The 2007 McCann study showed that all children react to synthetic food dyes. It was an important enough study that foods in Europe containing these dyes must carry a warning label.

    • Catherine says

      I would research what these dyes are made from. I don’t think you would be so happy to cast a blind eye towards them if you knew.

  3. says

    Way too risky for me, especially when it comes to my kid. That’s why we avoid artificial dyes like the plague, and when it comes to fun things like cupcakes, we dye with turmeric and beets. Works like a charm, and teaches my son all about how to create natural color. Carcinogens, and even just “possible” carcinogens, have no place in our kitchen.

  4. Bugladynora says

    This is where we started on our real food journey about a year ago, when we started on Feingold. It makes a huge difference for all of us in attitude and I found they were the #1 cause of my headaches. I also have far more energy, get sick less. I think I found your blog looking up a recipe around then. I would suspect your family doesn’t eat much by virtue of your regular diet, but I still am annoyed that I cannot buy pickles without it. Regular mustard is generally okay, but read the label if course. “natural flavors” is the thing on labels that most disturbs me and I want to see changed.

  5. Mollyann Hesser says

    We make 90% of what we eat & was dismayed finding yellow dye in a jar of Mt Olice dill pickles! We have bought this brand for years because they never used food colorings. Planting more cukes this year & aging dill pickles top the ever growing list of things made at home.

    • lizi says

      i know it is reallllly hard to find store bought pickles without food coloring or preservatives :(
      but this year i started making my own REAL pickles- lacto-fermented (like saurkraut) with just cukes, water, and salt, and then they culture and are sooooo tasty for you. i was reading that distilled vinegar is very harsh on your body (best for cleaning!) and cooking them anyway pretty much zaps the nutrients. but you know what, i really love my “brine” pickles even more than the vinegar kind, and my daughter and baby do too!! they aren’t quite as sour, and just have more flavor. i use a “perfect pickler” apparatus and it is fool proof. they are not only tasty, they are good for you since they are full of enzymes and probiotics. highly recommend!

  6. says

    Great article. I have to admit that, while I strive to eat as healthy as possible, I’ve never thought of cutting out food dye’s from my diet until today.

    Worst offender, MUSTARD??? Nooo!!!!

    Thanks for the insight!

    • Katie says

      You can breathe easy – most mustards don’t have it/don’t need it b/c mustard seed and turmeric is already truly that yellow. Phew! I was worried…but we’re okay!
      😉 Katie

      • Stacy says

        It is also really easy (and delicious) to make your own mustard, although it does require a microwave. Look for Alton Brown’s mustard recipe, and be careful because it gets strong/spicy fast.

  7. Jess Godfrey says

    Also, I’m pretty sure that most artificial food colorings come from coal tar… too bad these colors aren’t called “Coal Tar #5, Coal Tar #12, etc. And what about Red Dye #5, hasn’t that been proven to be carcinogenic? Maybe that’s one that’s been removed, not sure.

  8. Susan Alexander says

    Checked my stuff – pickles, really? Mine have a yellow AND blue dye!! GRRR. I’ll have to look at the store, but man, that would mean no burgers for us while on the challenge… So, do they have to list them as either blue/yellow/red #x or their “alternate” names like the sunset yellow, tartrazine? Is there a master list of what to look for somewhere? It’d be a worth a try in my kiddo with eczema and some possible SPD…

    • says

      Susan they can be listed either way (with the number or by the name) and the list above is all of the artificial food dyes approved by the FDA so they are the only ones in use. All of the alternate names are listed next to the numbers, so you should be covered!

      • Susan Alexander says

        Thanks, I think we will definitely be doing a food dye elimination here. If anything could help my daughter, I’d be all for it…

  9. says

    Thank you for this post. I am adamantly against the use of food coloring.

    I recently saw a major magazine have a Valentine’s recipe that called for one bottle of red food coloring. I thought I must have misread that, I went back and reread it several times. I can’t imagine how a major magazine would allow that to be printed. A little food dye goes a long way. The thing is, many of those recipes can still be a reddish color by using pureed beets.

    There are plenty of foods that can give off coloring, like blueberries. Just because things have been colored doesn’t mean they have to be a certain color.

  10. lizi says

    i was flipping through a southern living cookbook, from the 80’s or 90’s, and they had red velvet cake that used pureed beets. i was pretty impressed!! usually it calls for, you guessed it, a whole bottle of food coloring…bleh

    you know i really think once you base your diet on real food and stop buying stuff in boxes, cans, bottles, bags, you go a LONG way in eliminating food dyes.

    for lent we are giving up all processed food. which for us is organic tortilla chips, certain organic condiments like mustard and ketchup, and the occasional all natural frozen pizza and alden’s ice cream. it has taken me 10 years from when i used to eat yoplait, cold cereal, pickles, regular ice cream, and the like but i am really happy with how far we have come. it takes baby steps, but every step counts :)

  11. says

    We’ve been listening to a lot of old radio shows from the 40’s and 50’s. It is interesting to listen to the commercials. A common one is for the “new” spread, Parkay. It talks about states where it is legal to be sold dyed yellow…. So once upon a time, food dyes were banned by states. Very interesting…..

  12. says

    I think food dyes are bad news for all kids, not just the ones who show signs. And they’ve been linked to health as well as behavioral problems. Bottom line, though, is that artificial colors are pure chemicals (derived from petroleum). And they serve no purpose except to manipulate. So, really, they shouldn’t even be in our food supply.

    I’ve actually written a lot about food dyes. In fact, I can really get going on this subject, LOL. So, Katie, in case it’s helpful as you do your own exploration, I’m going to link to two of my posts here:

  13. says

    I need to sit down and pour over this. Thanks for all the research, Jen! I had heard abt the caramel color thing.

    From what you are saying annatto isn’t necessarily artificial – just can cause allergies, right? BC I’m thinking anything can cause allergies. Just making sure I don’t need to be concerned for one other reason – not that we eat much with it – since we make almost everything from scratch….but it’s good to know.

  14. says

    Funny you should mention it…I saw an episode of Rachael Ray this morning where she “made” her own mustard using dry mustard, water, and vinegar. I don’t know if the dry mustard would be free from dyes or not, but if you find that the mustard is a problem, you could try it! Thanks for all the info!

  15. Karu says

    I took my ADHD son off artificial colors many months ago. It makes enough of a difference that we don’t have to medicate. I noticed that last Halloween took him about three weeks to get back to normal and I tried my hardest to keep him away from the candy. Even his favorite candy bar, butterfinger, has yellow in it. Christmas was hard too but I am dreading Easter. It shouldn’t be so hard for kids to eat right in the country. The schools don’t help either by throwing parties for every holiday and loading these kids up with crap like Doritos, candy, cupcakes topped with artificial colored frosting etc. I just cringed when two parents (who thought they were being to great) brought in a cotton candy machine for the party. My son is always asking me why he can’t have all the things the other kids eat. We can’t even escape it at church. They are always giving out cheap candy, suckers, laffy taffy etc. I sit in church and shudder when I see these toddlers being given those nasty fruit snack and roll ups by their parents. Nothing you eat should be that shade of blue or red or green. Even fruits and vegetables are not those glowing bright colors. I struggle with this daily and read all the labels. My son no longer eats mac and cheese. He doesn’t like home made and I won’t buy the blue box kind. It breaks my heart.

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Agreed, it is such a struggle, and so unfair to the kiddos who have to skip a lot of the “fun” stuff. Our culture is definitely a culture of food. :( Have you tried mac and cheese recipes with cottage cheese? We found those to be amazing – not like the box, but better!

      I was thinking yesterday while cutting a bright green kiwi, “Why do we need the fake colors, anyway? This is gorgeous!” :) Katie

      • Sarah L says

        As my kids are getting older, I am able to point out how crummy they feel when they eat stuff like that. In the short run, I don’t want them to feel deprived or they will sneak foods. In the long run, they have to own this if they are going to continue to eat well when they are out of my home. I have discovered that these artificial “treats” become less attractive when the kids connect them to tummy aches, headaches, and out of control tantrum reactions.

        ps – I also try to have some undyed “fun” alternatives for those times when their little heart is breaking! I’m A-OK with trading an all-natural sucker for the crummy one the “nice” bank manager gave my 2 year old.

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