Is it Too Much To Ask for Foods without Synthetic Dyes?

The processed food industry has been using artificial food dyes in their products since the mid 1950s, with use increasing by about five times since that time. These dyes are what give skittles the ability to claim that they can make you “taste the rainbow.” Except it’s not the type of phytonutrient dense rainbow diet that helps fuel your health. This kind of rainbow is driven by artificial food dyes such as blue 1, blue 2, citrus red 2, green 3, orange b, red 3, red 40, yellow 5 and yellow 6. Is it safe for these ingredients to be used so commonly in our food supply?

Is it safe for us to be exposing children to such a large prevalence of food dyes? One study found that 43% of grocery store products marketed to children contained artificial food dyes. The highest percentage of products with artificial dyes were candies (96.3%), fruit-flavored snacks (94%), and drink mixes/powders (89.7%). There are two large concerns when it comes to artificial food dyes: 1) the safety and 2) the dose, especially in small children.

What Are Food Dyes?

Food dyes are made of synthetic petroleum-based chemicals and are used in hundreds of popular food products throughout the United States. According to another report by CSPI, there were 15,000,000 pounds of total food dyes certified into the food supply by the Food and Drug Administration in 2009 alone. While some studies show they may be safe, there are several others that demonstrate an association with adverse health outcomes, particularly symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity in children.

The safety of food dyes is drastically understudied in the United States. It also happens to be conducted largely by industry chemists. In addition, no one has ever studied the synergistic impact of combining several dyes into one food product, like skittles. The strongest link in the research however is with the association between artificial dyes and behavioral changes in children. The research was strong enough to prompt the British government to request the removal of most artificial food dyes from their products in December of 2009. It seems reasonable to conclude that these are compounds are not necessary in the food supply, we don’t have much research but from the research that we do have, there is concern. Until we know more about the safety, let’s remove them from the food supply.

This is not the approach that the food industry in the United States has taken. Companies continue to use them because they are cheap, stable and bright. Some of the largest food companies in the United States include a variety of food dyes in their products that are sold to both adults and children. Take for instance the ingredient list of Pillsbury Vanilla Frosting, which reads….

Sugar, Palm Oil, Water, Corn Syrup, Corn Starch, Canola Oil…(and then it gets better)…Contains 2% Or Less Of: Salt, Mono And Diglycerides, Artificial Flavor, Artificial Color Including Yellow 5 And Red 40, Polysorbate 60, Modified Corn Starch, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative), Soy Lecithin, Xanthan Gum, Citric Acid, Antioxidants (Ascorbyl Palmitate, Mixed Tocopherols, Chamomile And Rosemary Extracts).

Another popular food-like product, commonly marketed to children, that coats the product with food dyes is Skittles. The ingredient list of Skittles includes the following…

Sugar, Corn Syrup, Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil; Less than 2% of: citric acid, tapioca dextrin, modified corn starch, natural and artificial flavors, sodium citrate, colors (yellow 5 lake, red 40 lake, yellow 6 lake, blue 2 lake, titanium dioxide, blue 1 lake, yellow 6, red 40, yellow 5, blue 1), carnauba wax.

What Does the Science Say?

When it comes to the increased risk of disease or poor health outcomes, consumption of artificial food dyes appears to be associated with:


-Mood changes like higher risk of depression

-Allergic responses including hives and asthma

-Cancer in animal studies

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is a nutrition non-profit organization in Washington D.C. who states: “Commonly used food dyes, such as Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, and Red 40, pose risks including hyperactivity in children. Some also pose a risk of cancer (like Red 3) and allergic reactions.”

CSPI is one of the very few nutrition non-profits that doesn’t accept any outside funding from food companies or lobbyists. Their unbiased approach is the reason that I found a way to intern for them in graduate school in Washington DC. Among many helpful resources, CSPI has a Chemical Cuisine list that includes a number of food ingredients and the research behind their safety. There are about 25 foods that they encourage consumers avoid all together–among those 25 ingredients are artificial food dyes.

It’s important to note that the research on food dyes as a whole is not extensive. The studies that show increased risk of cancer was conducted in animals and has not necessarily been proven safe in humans. Two double blind, placebo-controlled studies have been conducted in free living children, assessing the association with hyperactivity. The 2007 study concluded that “Artificial colors or a sodium benzoate preservative (or both) in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the general population.” These results were what prompted the British government to send a clear message to food manufacturers: stop including food dyes in products.

Yellow 5 and Red 40 in Pillsbury Vanilla Frosting

The three most commonly used food dyes are Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. CSPI estimates that these three food dyes make up about 90% of all dyes used. Pillsbury vanilla frosting, which is by the way white, uses Yellow 5 and Red 40 for coloring. In addition to being associated with increased risk of ADHD in kids, Yellow 5 and Red 40 may also increase risk of cancer in mice.

Yellow 5: CSPI states that this dye “causes allergy-like hypersensitivity reactions, primarily in aspirin-sensitive persons, and triggers hyperactivity in some children. It may be contaminated with such cancer-causing substances as benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl (or chemicals that the body converts to those substances).”

Red 40: This food dye is the most commonly used food dye in the food supply. It has been shown to cause allergy-like symptoms in some individuals and may promote hyperactivity in children. CSPI also indicates that “An FDA review committee acknowledged problems, but said evidence of harm was not “consistent” or “substantial.”

Thankful for Alternatives

Fortunately, there are a variety of new and innovative companies that are changing what we know is possible for the food industry to deliver delicious and more nutritious foods to families.

A great alternative to Pillsbury frosting is Simple Mills Organic Vanilla Frosting. The ingredients include: organic palm shortening, organic powdered sugar, organic coconut oil, organic tapioca, vanilla, sea salt, rosemary extract and monk fruit extract!

The risks of food dyes Yellow 5 and Red 40 in Pillsbury Vanilla Frosting


The United States Food and Drug Administration previously stated in 2011: “Exposure to food and food components, including [AFC] and preservatives, may be associated with adverse behaviors, not necessarily related to hyperactivity, in certain susceptible children with ADHD and other problem behaviors, and possibly in susceptible children from the general population.” In 2018, the FDA updated it’s stance on it’s own website to state: “The totality of scientific evidence indicates that most children have no adverse effects when consuming foods containing color additives, but some evidence suggests that certain children may be sensitive to them. The FDA will continue to evaluate emerging science to ensure the safety of color additives approved for use.”

While the FDA acknowledges that there may be an association, these dyes are rampantly added to the food supply. Rather than advising that companies remove these ingredients until we know more, they state that they will “continue to evaluate emerging science.” This is the same approach that was used for cigarettes and RoundUp but it was certainly in favor of industry over the health of consumers.

They continue to say that it “is not due to an inherent neurotoxic property of the food or food components, including AFC and preservatives.” The FDA states that only certain predisposed children will have an intolerance to food items and color additives but it depends on the individual. They are not sure of the etiology behind the intolerance but throw out that it could involve genetics or endocrine or immunologic pathways.


The concern with food dyes involves the uncertain safety, the high prevalence in the food supply, and the lack of research that exists demonstrating the impact of several food dyes consumed in one food product. Perhaps the most compelling research that exists demonstrates an  association between behavior change and symptoms linked to hyperactivity in children. The potential risks of consuming artificial colors are not worth consuming, especially when there are companies using beet juice, carrot juice, paprika extract and turmeric to alter the color of food products.

Fortunately there is more of a demand than ever for food with integrity, thanks to consumers becoming more aware of the foods they are eating. This has led to the emergence of new food brands, like Simple Mills, that provide products that don’t contain potentially harmful food coloring. As more and more companies come out with innovative food products, it makes you wonder why ingredients like Yellow 5 and Red 40 were ever included in the food supply to begin with.

We cannot subject ourselves to being science experiments and to wait for there to be enough research for the government to decide to change the regulations, similar to the British government changes. As health advocates, it’s important to read ingredient lists and support companies who are making choices in the best interest of consumers. This is the most powerful way for us to take our health back into our own hands and change the trajectory of the food industry! Don’t underestimate the power that you have to vote with your fork.

Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon on Unsplash