Flavour of the Week

Alluring Allura Red? The Tale of Red #40 and Other Food Dyes

flavour-of-the-week-logo3Currently nine artificial food colours are approved for use in the US, all of which are derived from petroleum (1).  The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives jointly assess the health risk associated with food additives and have set Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADI). The ADI is the amount that they believe it is safe to eat each day. Importantly, however, every country controls the dyes they allow in the food supply and it varies considerably (1).

Currently, food dyes are most commonly found in candy, beverages, desserts, cereals, and snack foods (2), i.e., foods targeting children. Why artificial rather than natural dyes? Because they are cheap! Despite growing concerns regarding the impact of synthetic food dyes on health, little has been done to reduce consumer exposure North America. We are NOT convinced that these dyes are necessary, NOR many of the foods proudly displaying their man-made glory, for that matter.

Would Kraft Dinner by any other colour taste as sweet?  Petitioners against Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 certainly think so! Do artificial food colours *really* have a negative impact on behaviour in children and promote hyperactivity?

Artificial Food Colours and Hyperactivity
The idea that artificial flavours and colours can contribute to hyperactivity was popularized by Benjamin Feingold in the 1970s (1). Scientific testing of Feingold’s diet – a diet free of artificial food flavours and colours – suggested that there MAY be something to his hypothesis; however, only a small group of children showed improvements and the results were controversial (3). Research focused specifically on artificial food colours using “dye-challenge” studies, where children were given a variety of different dyes and doses, found that only a small subgroup of children had negative behavioural reactions to the dyes. As the dose increased, however, so did the number of children exhibiting behavioural problems such as: irritability, inability to sleep and pay attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity (4).

kdA meta-analysis of 15 different studies led Schab and Trinh (5) to conclude that artificial food colours can promote hyperactivity in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Another meta-analysis of 24 studies estimated that approximately 33% of children with ADHD would benefit from a restricted diet and 8% have negative reactions to artificial food colours (6). Artificial food colours may also increase hyperactivity in children not identified as having ADHD (7).

Perhaps it is this evidence that has prompted the European Union to require a warning “this food may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” for foods that contain any of six different food dyes (1). In addition to hyperactivity, it has also been suggested that individuals with asthma, eczema, and migraines may react to artificial food colours (1).

How and Why?
TwizzlersWhy or how artificial food colours negatively impact health, at least in some instances, is still a bit of a mystery. A couple of explanations have been suggested though…

1. Toxic Chemical Compounds
Could the artificial food colours include chemical compounds that may be toxic in some way. Studies using high doses in rats suggest that weight gain could be suppressed (this is not in a good lose weight way but rather a may inhibit growth in children way). There was also evidence of liver stress, increased kidney function, and abnormal blood levels of red and white blood cells (8,9).

Plain-M&MsStudies looking at behavior found hyperactivity, increased anxiety, and depression-like bahaviours in rats (10).  There are also reports of neurotoxicity demonstrated by a decrease in neurite growth a process that indicates the brain cells are healthy (11). Other dyes were found to reduce both physical activity and brain activity. High doses also decreased learning and memory in rats (12).

2. Hypersensitivity
A second suggestion is that the effects of artificial food colours may be due to a hypersensitivity mechanism similar to an allergic reaction, although more research is needed (1).

3. Interactions with Essential Nutrients
It may be that artificial food colours interfere with the absorption of essential nutrients like iron and zinc. Zinc and iron have roles in the brain and deficiencies have been associated with hyperactivity, behavioural changes, and ADHD (1). One study found greater zinc losses in children given yellow dye but these results require confirmation (13).  At this stage, however, the role of artificial food colours in nutrient absorption is largely speculation.

No Baloney’s advice. While artificial food colours have not been convicted of inducing hyperactivity in North America (yet), there is enough evidence to warrant pause and thinking twice before grabbing those brilliantly coloured treats!

Since artificial food colours provide absolutely no nutritional benefit we recommend avoiding them (and artificial flavours for that matter) as much as possible. You’ll get the added benefit of making overall healthier food choices – most good-for-you foods don’t contain artificial colour! While natural food colouring agents like beet, carrot, annatto, and paprika extracts are preferable to synthetic, carmine red colouring is *technically* natural but can still cause allergic reactions. When in doubt, go with plant-based colouring agents if you are at all concerned.

What to avoid on an ingredient list: Blue 1, Blue 2, Citrus Red 2, Green 3, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, “artificial color,” “artificial color added” or “colour added”.

For some of our top unhealthy foods check out our previous posts Blinded by Science: Abnormal and Unnatural Foods and Part 2 for our top culprits.


  1. Stevens LJ et al. (2013) Mechanisms of behavioral, atopic, and other reactions to artificial food colors in children. Nutrition Reviews 71(5): 268-281.
  2. Marmion DM. (1991) Handbook of U.S. Colorants: Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics, and Medical Devices, 3rd Ed. New York: Wiley-Interscience 1991; 94.
  3. Williams JI et al. (1978) Diet in the management of hyperkinesis: a review of the tests of Feingold’s hypotheses. Can Psychiatr Association. 23(4):241-8.
  4. Rowe KS et al. (1994) Synthetic food coloring and behavior: a dose response effect in a double blind, placebo-controlled, repeated-measures study. J Pediatr 25: 691-8.
  5. Schab DW et al. (2004) Do artificial food colors promote hyperactivity in children with hyperactive syndromes? A meta-analysis of double-blind placebo-controlled trials. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 25(6): 423-34.
  6. Nigg JT et al. (2012) Meta-analysis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 51:86-97.
  7. McCann D et al. (2007) Food additives and hyperactive behavior in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 370:1560-1567.
  8. El-Wahab HM et al. (2013) Toxic effects of some synthetic food colorants and/or flavor additives on male rats. Toxicol Ind Health. 29(2):224-32.
  9. Amin KA et al. (2010) Effect of food azo dyes tartrazine and carmoisine on biochemical parameters related to renal, hepatic function and oxidative stress biomarkers in young male rats. Food Chem Toxicol. 48:2994-2999.
  10. Kamel MM et al. (2011) The potential health hazard of tartrazine and levels of hyperactivity, anxiety-like symptoms, depression and anti-social behaviour in rats. J Am Sci 7:1211-1218. http://www.jofamericanscience.org/journals/am-sci/am0706/183_6181am0706_1211_1218.pdf
  11. Lau K et al. (2006) Synergistic interactions between commonly used food additives in a developmental neurotoxicity test. Toxicol Sci. 90:178-87. http://toxsci.oxfordjournals.org/content/90/1/178.long
  12. Gao Y et al. (2011) Effect of food azo dye tartrazine on learning and memory functions in mice and rats, and the possible mechanisms involved. J Food Sci 76:T125-T129.
  13. Ward N et al. (1990) The influence of the chemical additive tartrazine on the zinc status of hyperactive children – a double-blind placebo-controlled study. J Nutr Med (1):51-57.

2 thoughts on “Alluring Allura Red? The Tale of Red #40 and Other Food Dyes

  1. Most food policy operates on the assumption that eating things made from petroleum has no negative effects, but food dyes were first added to foods without any consideration about the potential problems they could cause. (Of course when they were first created, they were derived from coal tar oil, not petroleum. But that is no comfort!) Anyway, not only are these things petrochemicals, but they are legally permitted to contain toxic contaminants including mercury, lead and arsenic.
    When you look at the tiny number of food dye survivors, you will see that most of them have been banned from use in food as they have been found to be health hazards. So that’s why (in the US) you will see Red 3 and Red 40 on food labels, but not any of those missing numbers! Red 1 and 2 have been banned, and so have all of the numbers between Red 4 and Red 39. Kind of gets you wondering! The handful of dyes still allowed have not been found to be safe, they simply have not yet been banned. Sadly, many of the dyes banned from use in food are still permitted to be used in cosmetics and drugs. This means that a sick child may be given a medicine that contains dyes considered too hazardous to be used in food!
    But take heart, folks, most synthetic dyes made today originate in petroleum refineries in China…and since we know how pure Chinese exports are, doesn’t that sound reassuring!? (sarcasm is intended)
    Since 1955, the amount of fake dyes used in foods has increased 500%, and isn’t it interesting that the number of children with serious behavior and health problems has increased as well. The amount of dye the average child ingests today is several hundred mg, not the tiny 5mg or 27mg or even 65mg used in studies. And that bowl of Froot Loops does not have one single dye (which was often studied) but many different dyes, plus fake flavors (more petroleum), and probably synthetic preservatives (yet more petroleum!). And the poor child ingesting them is treated to lots of high fructose corn syrup.
    Add in the dyes, fake flavors and fluoride in his toothpaste, the “strawberry” milk and the heaping dose of MSG in his school lunch, plus the Jolly Ranchers his teacher hands out, etc., etc., and you have a recipe for some real behavior, learning and health problems!
    Happily, there are lots of kid-friendly foods available. The Feingold Association researches food to identify those that are free of these unnecessary chemicals. See http://www.feingold.org.
    And we now have a web site devoted to fixing the embarrassment known as school lunch. See http://www.School-Lunch.org.
    Jane Hersey, Feingold Association national director
    author of “Why Can’t My Child Behave?”

  2. Pingback: Nutrition Newsmakers of 2013 | No Baloney

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