When it comes to foods containing artificial dyes, you do not want to eat the rainbow.
“Food dyes have been used throughout history, dating back to ancient civilizations,” says Tanya Mezher MS, RDN, CDN, Founding Functional Practitioner at Malla. “However, their chemical processes and pathways have changed and so has people’s consumption of them. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is extremely high in refined, processed, and packaged food, which also happens to be the most colorful and full of additives and food dyes.”
First, a quick refresher.
“Food dyes are artificial or synthetic (aka chemical) substances added to food and beverages to enhance their color,” Tanya says. “They are often used to make food look more appealing or to replace colors lost during processing. Artificial coloring is typically used and preferred over natural because of its vibrant color.”
But all of this comes with risk.
“People would likely be surprised to learn that artificial colors used in food have been linked to behavioral changes and hypersensitivity in adults and children (such as ADHD), carcinogenicity (the ability to cause cancer), and genotoxicity (DNA damage), which can also lead to cancer,” says Tanya.
Most Common Artificial Dyes
Tanya tells us that Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are the most commonly used and consumed food dyes. They account for 90% of the dyes used to color foods. “Red 3 appears to be the most controversial and well studied and has been linked to harmful effects like cancer.”
Tanya shares the risks of each of these dyes below.
“Known for its cherry-red color, Red 3 is easily recognized as the color used for maraschino cherries, chewing gum, colored candies, cake icing, baked goods, etc. It has been linked to cancer, and prominent scientists and organizations have pushed for its removal from the list of approved food additives.”
“This red dye is less controversial than Red 3 and the most prevalent. It’s used in candy, gelatin desserts, soda pop, pastries, and many packaged and processed foods. It contains benzidine which is a known carcinogen.”
“This is commonly used in processed foods, such as baked goods, breakfast cereals, snack foods, candies, beverages, and condiments. It’s also used in personal care products like shampoo and body wash. Yellow 5 is commonly linked to allergic reactions, such as hives and swelling, especially in individuals who are sensitive to aspirin.”
“Similar to Yellow 5, this dye is also found in a variety of processed foods, including baked goods, breakfast cereals, snack foods, candies, beverages, and condiments, as well as personal care products. The potential negative side effects of consuming Yellow 6 include allergic reactions, hypersensitivity, and possible association with adrenal and testicular tumors.”
How can we limit our exposure to food dyes?
Thankfully, Tanya says there are a few things we can do.
- Read. the. labels. While some of these artificial, dye-containing foods are easy to spot, others are hiding in plain sight. Salad dressing, pickles, smoked salmon, and salsa are just a few of the surprising foods that may contain artificial dyes. “Look for natural colorings such as beet juice instead of Red 40,” Tanya advises.
- Choose whole foods. Look for fresh or frozen fruits and veggies that are naturally colorful.
- Make it at home with natural ingredients. You can make healthier versions of your favorite foods.
Up next, be the first to know our weekly content and sign up for our Poosh newsletter.