Are attractive artificial colours hurting your health?

Artificial food dyes are responsible for the bright colours of candy, sports drinks and baked goods. They’re even used in certain brands of pickles, smoked salmon and salad dressing, as well as medications.

In fact, artificial food dye consumption has increased by 500% in the last 50 years, and children are the biggest consumers. Claims have been made that artificial dyes cause serious side effects, such as hyperactivity in children, as well as cancer and allergies.

The topic is highly controversial and there are many conflicting opinions about the safety of artificial food dyes. In this article, I have tried to separate fact from fiction.

What are food dyes?

Food dyes are chemical substances that were developed to enhance the appearance of food by giving it artificial colour.

People have added colourings to food for centuries, but the first artificial food colourings were created in 1856 from coal tar.

Artificial food dyes are responsible for the bright colours of candy, sports drinks and baked goods.

Nowadays, food dyes are made from petroleum.

Over the years, hundreds of artificial food dyes have been developed, but a majority of them have since been found to be toxic. There are only a handful of artificial dyes that are still used in food.

Nowadays, food dyes are made from petroleum.Food manufacturers often prefer artificial food dyes over natural food colourings, such as beta carotene and beet extract, because they produce more vibrant colours.

However, there is quite a bit of controversy regarding the safety of artificial food dyes. All of the artificial dyes that are currently used in food have gone through testing for toxicity in animal studies.

Regulatory agencies, like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), have concluded that the dyes do not pose significant health risks.

Not everyone agrees with that conclusion. Interestingly, some food dyes are deemed safe in one country, but banned from human consumption in another, making it extremely confusing to assess their safety.

Artificial dyes currently used in food

The following food dyes are approved for use by both the EFSA and the FDA

    • Red No. 3 (Erythrosine): A cherry-red colouring commonly used in candy, popsicles and cake-decorating gels.
    • Red No. 40 (Allura Red): A dark red dye that is used in sports drinks, candy, condiments and cereals.
    • Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine): A lemon-yellow dye that is found in candy, soft drinks, chips, popcorn and cereals.
    • Yellow No. 6 (Sunset Yellow): An orange-yellow dye that is used in candy, sauces, baked goods and preserved fruits.
    • Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue): A greenish-blue dye used in ice cream, canned peas, packaged soups, popsicles and icings.
    • Blue No. 2 (Indigo Carmine): A royal blue dye found in candy, ice cream, cereal and snacks.

The most popular food dyes are Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. These three make up 90% of all the food dye used in the US. A few other dyes are approved in some countries but banned in others. Green No. 3, also known as Fast Green, is approved by the FDA but banned in Europe.

Quinoline Yellow, Carmoisine and Ponceau are examples of food colourings allowed in the EU but banned in the US.

Artificial dyes currently used in food

For my Australian readers, here are 14 artificial colours currently permitted in Australia, many of which are banned or restricted in other countries.

Code

Name

Banned or restricted in other countries

102* Tartrazine UK, EU, previously banned in Norway
104* Quinoline Yellow UK, EU, USA, Japan, Canada, previously banned in Norway
110* Sunset Yellow UK, EU, previously banned in Norway
122* Azorubine, Carmoisine UK, EU, USA, Canada, Japan, previously banned in Norway
123 Amaranth USA, previously banned in Norway
124* Ponceau, Brilliant Scarlet UK, EU, USA, previously banned in Norway
127 Erythrosine previously banned in Norway
129* Allura Red UK, EU, previously banned in Norway
132 Indigotine previously banned in Norway
133** Brilliant Blue previously banned in Norway
142 Green S USA, Japan, Canada, previously banned in Norway
143 Fast Green FCF UK, EU, previously banned in Norway
151 Brilliant Black USA, Canada, Japan, previously banned in Norway
155 Brown HT USA, Canada, Japan, previously banned in Norway

Reference: From Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) Food Additives Numerical List – http://www.foodstandards.gov.au (accessed April 2009)

Childhood ADHD and food dyes

A report published in 2010 by the US Centre for Science in the Public Interest, titled Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks, found that colourings can pose a risk of cancer, hyperactivity in children and allergies, and called for them to be banned across America.

Two-thirds of Australian mothers have noticed behavioural changes in their children after eating food containing artificial colours and preservatives, according to a survey this month by family research and welfare group Karitane.

The mothers surveyed said children became more restless, agitated, hyperactive, erratic, inconsolable and even aggressive.

A survey by the Dietitians Association of Australia found that 21 per cent of children aged nine months were being given biscuits and cakes every day.

So what harmful effects do artificial dyes have on our health?

So what harmful effects do artificial dyes have on our health?

Over the past 100 years, food dyes have been found to be riskier to our health than any other category of food additives. Despite being commonly used in processed foods, the majority of artificial food colourings have been found to raise significant health concerns:

1. INCREASES INFLAMMATION AND DISRUPTS THE FUNCTIONING OF THE IMMUNE SYSTEM.
    • Consumption of foods containing artificial dyes can cause an inflammatory response in the body, which leads to the activation of the immune system (increases the number of white blood cells entering the bloodstream).
    •  Artificial dyes contain small molecules, which can attach to proteins in our bodies. This can cause disruptions in the immune system since the immune system finds it difficult to defend the body against them.
2. CONTAIN CANCER-CAUSING, TOXIC CONTAMINANTS.
    • Some of the most commonly used food dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) are contaminated with known carcinogens or cancer-causing substances, such as 4-aminobiphenyl, 4-aminoazobenzene, and benzidine. According to the FDA, these contaminants are present in food dyes at “safe” levels.
    • Red 3 was found to be an animal carcinogen way back in 1990, but for some reason is still allowed in our food.
3. MAY CAUSE CANCEROUS TUMOR DEVELOPMENT. SOME OF THE MOST COMMONLY USED FOOD DYES ARE LINKED TO MANY DIFFERENT FORMS OF CANCER:
    • Citrus Red 2 caused bladder and other tumours in mice and bladder tumours in rats.
    • Red 3 caused thyroid tumours in rats.
    • Blue 2 may cause brain and bladder tumours in rats.
    • Red 40 may cause reticuloendothelial (immune system cells that are spread throughout the liver, spleen, and lymphatic system) tumours in mice.
    • Yellow 6 may cause adrenal and testicular tumours in rats.
4. CAUSES HYPERSENSITIVITY, ESPECIALLY IN CHILDREN.
    • Red 40 has been shown to trigger hypersensitivity in children.
    • Yellow 5 has been linked to hyperactivity, hypersensitivity, and other unfavourable behavioural 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 behavioural problems in children.

Conclusion

Most foods containing artificial food dyes are highly processed, contain little if any natural nutrients, and are high in calories and added sugars. Food dyes are likely to be detrimental to our health, which is supported by the cancer-causing, immune disrupting, and hypersensitivity effects that they are linked to.

Remember, what we put in our bodies has a huge effect on our cells, which in turn affects our health and wellbeing. Do a big favour for your health and choose to put healthy, naturally-coloured foods in your body!

Sources:

“Color Additives Questions and Answers for Consumers.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, 2018, www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/color-additives-questions-and-answers-consumers.

Kobylewski, Sarah, and Michael F. Jacobson. Food dyes: A rainbow of risks. Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2010.

Kobylewski, Sarah, and Michael F. Jacobson. “Toxicology of food dyes.” International journal of occupational and environmental health 18.3 (2012): 220-246.

Okafor, Sunday N., et al. “Assessment of the health implications of synthetic and natural food colourants—A critical review.” UK Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biosciences 4.4 (2016): 01-11.

Vojdani, Aristo, and Charlene Vojdani. “Immune reactivity to food colouring.” Altern. Ther 21 (2015): 1-1001

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0273230015300751 

If you have enjoyed this topic, you might also like to watch my Youtube Video: Does Good Food = Good Mood?

Helping You Discover, Empower & Prosper

Dr Arun Dhir  |  GI Surgeon, Health Reformist & Passionate Educator.

Dr Arun Dhir

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About Dr Arun:

Besides having a busy private practice at Melbourne Gastro Surgery – Centre for Weight Loss, Dr Arun is an active member of the ANZ Association of Gastro-Oesophageal surgeons (ANZGOSA), ANZ Society of Metabolic and Obesity Surgery (OSSANZ) and Australian College of Nutrition and Environmental Medicine (ACNEM).

Dr Arun is also a senior lecturer (University of Melbourne) and yoga and meditation teacher, with a strong interest in the mind-body-gut connection. He regularly writes and speaks about gut health, gut microbiome, obesity, gastrointestinal surgery and healing. Arun’s published works include Happy Gut Healthy Weight (Balboa Press 2018), Creating a New You – Health Journal (Metagenics 2019), and Your Mess Has a Message (2021).