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4 Food Dye Colors Every Parent Should Know To Prevent Cancer

Food dyes

Food dyes may make foods look brighter or more colorful, but they also may be taking a toll on your child's health, risking cancer.

Food dyes are common in processed foods, which are the mainstay of the American diet, and a growing number of parents are concerned about the potential dangers their children face when consuming these additives. Here is what parents should know about the 4 different colors of food dyes added to foods, beverages, and medications.

What are the approved food dyes?

Green, blue, yellow, and red—these are more than basic colors. They are also the colors associated with a variety of food dyes approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as additives to items people take into the body in one way or another (e.g., food, beverage, medication, supplements).

On the FDA’s consumer website, a statement from Linda Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Office of Cosmetic and Colors in the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition states “Color additives are very safe when used properly,” and follows with “There is no such thing as absolute safety of any substance.”

Over the past decades, many food colors have been banned from being added to foods and medications because research has indicated an association between their use and the development of cancers, neurological damage, birth defects, and other serious conditions. Some experts and consumers continue to petition the FDA to eliminate even more food colorings, such as the current efforts to have Kraft remove FD&C yellow #5 and #6 from their macaroni and cheese products because of possible links with behavioral problems in children.

Indeed, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported that based on results of a meta-analysis, “an estimated 8% of children with ADHD [attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder] may have symptoms related to synthetic food colors.”

Given the uncertainty about the safety of food additives, parents and all consumers who are concerned need to investigate the research and see what is known—and not known—about these substances and make decisions about whether to avoid or limit their consumption, not only in food and beverage products but in supplements, medications, and health products (e.g., toothpaste, mouthwash) as well.

According to the FDA, the following food dyes are approved for use in food (F), and most also can be found in drugs and cosmetics (D&C). Here are a few things you should know about each of these food colors.

[1] FD&C Blue #1 & Blue #2: Both of these food dyes can be found in candy and beverages, while blue #1 is added to baked goods and your pets may ingest blue #2 in their food. Research has shown some cancer risk in animals associated with blue #1 and suggestions it may cause allergic reactions in some people. Blue #2 has been found to cause brain cancer in lab animals.

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[2] FD&C Green #3. The one good thing about green #3 is that it’s not used often, although check out labels on any candy, gelatins, or beverages that are green. Animal studies several decades ago noted that green #3 possibly caused tumors in rats, but the FDA decided the dye was safe for human consumption.

[3] FD&C Red #3, FD&C Red #40, and Citrus Red #2. Parents can expect to find red #3 in foods kids love—candy, fruit rollups, gum, cereals, and iced baked goods. Decades-old research indicates that red #3 caused thyroid tumors in rats and the FDA recommended the additive be banned, but industry and other pressures allowed it to stay on the market.

FD&C Red #40 is found in thousands of food items ranging from candies to soft drinks, baked goods, sausage, cereals, condiments, gelatins, and snack foods (and pet foods as well). Allergic reactions have been associated with this food coloring.

In the United States, citrus red #2 is used only to color orange peel and is said to not penetrate into the fruit itself. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists citrus red #2 as a possible carcinogen.

[4] FD&C Yellow #5 and #6. Studies indicate yellow #5 is associated with hyperactivity in children and allergy-like effects. Baked goods, candy, and gelatins typically contain this additive. Yellow #6 also is found in candy and baked goods, as well as soft drinks. Animal testing has shown this dye to cause adrenal and kidney tumors. Allergic reactions also have been noted with exposure to yellow #6.

Both yellow #5 and #6 have been banned in several countries (but not the US) because they have been associated with allergic reactions, hyperactivity in kids, migraine, and cancer.

Parents interested in the complete list of approved, no longer authorized, or restricted color additives can check out the FDA’s website. Anyone interested in the petition to ban yellow #5 and #6 from Kraft macaroni and cheese products can visit the change.org petition. Further information about food additives can be found at the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Food Additives Project, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and via internet search.

Food dyes may make jelly beans more colorful, macaroni and cheese more yellow, and cupcake icing more pink, but they also may be taking a toll on your children’s (and your) health. When choosing foods (as well as supplements, medications, and health products such as toothpaste and mouthwash) for your family, the safer, healthier choice may be foods and other products without added food dyes and other artificial additives.

Center for Science in the Public Interest
Food and Drug Administration
Nigg JT et al. Meta-analysis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2012 Jan; 51(1): 86-97
Pesticide Action Network

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