Controversial Ingredients

Food Coloring

Published on Thursday, 11 October 2012 13:33

What is Artificial Food Coloring?

An artificial food dye, or “color additive” is defined by the FDA as “any dye, pigment or substance which when added or applied to a food, drug or cosmetic, or to the human body, is capable (alone or through reactions with other substances) of imparting color.”[1]  They are often made from petroleum and used to enhance existing color, add new color to colorless foods or correct any loss of color that occurs during storage, processing or use of a product.

From the FDA:

Certified colors are synthetically produced (or human made) and used widely because they impart an intense, uniform color, are less expensive, and blend more easily to create a variety of hues. There are nine certified color additives approved for use in the United States (e.g., FD&C Yellow No. 6. See [below] for a complete list). Certified food colors generally do not add undesirable flavors to foods.[1]

The seven standard artificial food dyes used in the United States, also known as “Certified Colors” are:

FD&C Blue #1 (Brilliant Blue, E133),
FD&C Blue #2 (Indigotine, E132),
FD&C Green #3 (Fast Green FCF, E143),
FD&C Red #3 (Erythrosine, E127),
FD&C Red #40
(Allura Red AC, E129),
FD&C Yellow #5
(Tartrazine, E102), and
FD&C Yellow #6
(Sunset Yellow FCF, E110).

There are two other artificial colorings used in the United States, but with limits: FD&C Orange B is only permitted for use in hot dog and sausage casings.  FD&C Red Citrus #2 is only permitted for coloring the skin of oranges.  It is worth noting that the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) has listed FD&C Red Citrus #2 as a Group 2B Carcinogen, or possibly carcinogenic to humans.

Why are they controversial?

At, we have two major points of concern when it comes to artificial dyes. 

The first is the disputed safety of these dyes, as studies have linked them to causing cancer in lab animals, hyperactivity in children with ADHD and more.  In 1984, the FDA’s Acting Commissioner, Mark Novitch, said that Red #3 was “of greatest public health concern…The agency should not knowingly allow continued exposure [to a] color additive that has clearly been shown to induce cancer while questions of mechanism are explored."  Unfortunately, the FDA only banned the use of Red #3 in cosmetics and certain drugs, as well as the "lake" version of this dye. [2]  CSPI, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has summarized the studies available for Food Dyes in this chart: Click here.  There is still significant need for more independent study and analysis.

Our second concern is the way food coloring affects the psychological aspect of eating.  Bright food coloring is often used in processed or “junk” foods, which are also full of sugar, fat and other controversial ingredients.  Because things like candy and snacks are usually colored in fun and bright ways, children are drawn to them rather than more nutritious food.  This trains kids to think that “bright” is delicious, forming a habit that points them towards snack food rather than a healthier option.

There are other options.

The food dye industry may claim that a world without artificial dyes means boring, colorless meals, but this is not the case at all.  In many European countries, where the use of artificial dyes has to be disclosed on the label, manufacturers have still found ways to impart color to food.  As David W. Schab and Michael F. Jacobson (a psychiatry professor and food safety advocate) wrote,

In Britain, for example, McDonald’s Strawberry Sundaes are made without artificial coloring; here, Red 40 adds to the strawberry color. Both the British and American formulations of Nutri-Grain Strawberry cereal bars contain strawberries, but in Britain plant-based colorings add extra color, while in the United States Red 40 does the job. [3]

Of course, artificial dyes are less expensive, and the FDA has not given manufacturers any reason to change their formulations to exclude these potentially dangerous and definitely unnecessary chemicals.

How can I avoid these chemicals?

Carefully reading an ingredient list is the best way to avoid artificial colors.  For other sources of natural coloring, look for ingredients like annatto extract, beta-carotene, grape skin extract, cochineal extract (carmine), paprika oleoresin, caramel color, fruit and vegetable juices, saffron, dehydrated beets, and more.  Keep in mind that these ingredients may be allergens or themselves controversial.  For example, caramel color may or may not contain gluten, depending on how it is manufactured.  Carmine is derived from the cochineal beetle, a concern for vegans, and also causes allergic reactions.

The Bottom Line is committed to providing consumers with the information they need to make healthy and nutritious choices.  Artificial food coloring is controversial at best, and could be replaced with natural, non-hazardous coloring options, and ingredients referred to as “colors” or “coloring” should be disclosed by name to provide consumers with all the relevant information.