Is Red Dye 40 Dangerous for Your Health?


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Manveen Sibia
Manveen had an illustrious career in journalism and writing. She is the mother of a super active 7-year-old. While chasing her around the house, she also finds time to pursue her passion for writing on parenting, education, health, fitness, and entertainment.

Coloring food to make it look attractive is not a new concept. We have used natural foods like turmeric and beetroot, to add color to the food we make for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the modern food industry had replaced these natural foods colors with cheaper chemical-based food colors made from petroleum. Red Dye 40 is one such dye. In fact, it is one of the most common food dyes used in the United States.

There have been reports of several side effects of this dye. Though the FDA approves it, it is banned in several countries. Read on to find the truth behind Red Dye 40.

What is Red Dye 40?

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Red Dye 40 is a synthetic food color that is derived from coal tars. The FDA lists Red Dye 40 as a synthetic or artificial coloring to be used in products like cereals, beverages, gelatin, pudding, cakes, and dairy items. The US FDA mandates that Red Dye 40 has to be listed by name on the food labels. Food coloring that comes from natural sources is exempt from this.

Does Red Dye 40 have side effects?

According to the FDA, artificial colors like Red Dye 40 are safe when used according to the regulations. There are strict regulations about what kinds of foods it can be used in and in what quantities. Red 40 is one of the nine food colors that are certified by the FDA that have to be approved every time a new batch is prepared.

Though the FDA mandates that food with Red Dye 40 must be labeled appropriately, the labels do not have to show how much of this dye is present in each food product.

While FDA states that most children do not have an adverse reaction to Red Dye 40, some children may be sensitive to it. The Centre for Science in the Public Interest disagrees. According to them, the Red 40 can produce allergic reactions in some consumers (1). People have reported headaches, uneasiness, upset stomach, and jitteriness after consumption of too much of this dye. Some people who come in contact with this dye can develop swelling around their mouths.

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Red Dye 40 contains p-cresidine, which, according to the US Department of Health, is anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in animals (2). Many studies have also shown that artificial dyes like Red 40 adversely affect children with ADD or ADHD. Some children who are taking medication for ADD or ADHD, showed improvement when they stopped eating foods that contained Red Dye 40. They were able to stop their medication.

During one study, adult rats were fed diets contain Red Dye 40 for two weeks and then bred. Female rats continued to have this food throughout the gestation and lactation period. The results showed that this dye reduced the weight of the adult as well as the offspring; it decreased brain weight and lowered the chances of the survival of the newborn rats. The researchers concluded that overall, Red 40 produced evidence of both physical and behavioral toxicity in developing rats at doses of up to 10% of their diet (3).

So, there are a lot of controversies related to the use of dyes in food. Most experts suggest staying away from processed food to avoid exposure to food dyes.

How to identify Red Dye 40?

The most common mistake we all make is to assume that as long as you don’t eat brightly colored red or orange food, you can avoid Red 40. This fact is not always true. Red Dye 40 is also present in food that is not red like pickles, salad dressings, and some cheeses. Red dye 40 goes by many different names. Read the labels of the food properly and look out for the following names –

  • Allure Red
  • Allura Red AC
  • CI 16035
  • Food Red 17
  • FD&C Red No. 40
  • Red 40
  • Red No. 40

The use of Red Dye 40 is not restricted to processed food products alone. Many cosmetics, types of mouthwash, and beauty products also contain artificial dyes.

Foods that contain Red Dye 40

From candies to pickles, food dyes are added to a whole wide range of foods.  The food industry adds 15 million pounds of artificial dyes into our diet every year. More than 40% of this is Red Dye 40. Here’s a list of foods that contain this dye –

1. Candies

M&Ms, Skittles, Peeps, Candy corn, Jelly beans, Reese’s pieces, and Strawberry Twizzlers contain Red Dye 40. While red candies are the most apparent source of Red 40, candies with other colors may also include this dye. Often this dye is mixed with yellow color to give a caramel color.

2. Drinks

Drinks like Powerade Orange, Crush Orange, and Sunny D Orange Strawberry contain Red Dye 40. While soft drinks and sodas do contain Red Dye 40, you will be surprised to find that some health drinks, protein drinks, and energy drinks also contain this dye. Some iced tea products and grape juices also contain Red 40.

3. Breakfast cereals

Many kinds of breakfast cereals like Cap’n Crunch, Trix, Fruity Cheerios, and fruity pebbles contain Red Dye 40. This dye adds no nutritional value to the cereal; it just makes it look better. General Mills tried to replace artificial dyes with natural ones in their cereal. The resulting dull colors and the consumer feedback made them reverse their decision.

4. Condiments

Many barbecue sauces and salad dressings contain Red 40. This dye gives the products a golden color. Some brands of pickles also use several dyes include Red 40, to give their product a bright yellow color.

5. Packages snacks

Jello, gummy snacks, and chocolate pudding contain Red Dye 40. This dye is used to provide the color to chocolate pudding, which actually contains very little chocolate. Flavored nachos, potato chips, and corn chips also have Red Dye 40 in them.

6. Ice creams and frozen desserts

Ice-creams, popsicles, and frozen desserts contain Red 40. As mentioned earlier, it is not just red-colored food that contains this dye; it is used to create pink and yellow colors as well. The use of Red Dye 40 is not restricted to food alone; it is also used in cosmetics like sun tanning products, eye shadows, and body washes.

Ways to avoid artificial food coloring

1. Look at the food labels carefully

Several foods that are marketed as healthy or natural may also contain artificial food colors. Look at the label carefully to identify if it contains Red Dye 40 or any other food colors.

2. Avoid highly processed foods

If it is difficult for you to prepare food from scratch and you often rely on pasta sauce, bottled dressing, or canned soups, you have to smarten up. Opt for the least processed variety. These kinds of food have a smaller list of ingredients. The longer the ingredient list is, the more unhealthy additives the food will contain.

3. Use natural food coloring

While cooking and baking at home, avoid using synthetic dyes, and use natural ones instead. Many natural foods, like turmeric and beetroot, make beautiful coloring agents. Head to the produce aisle in the grocery store to choose healthy and natural food coloring agents.

Red and pink color – Beetroot puree, cranberry juice, pomegranate juice, strawberries, raspberries, roasted red peppers, and paprika

Orange or yellow – Mango puree, carrots puree, golden beetroot puree, turmeric, saffron

Blue or purple – Blueberries, acai berry, red grape juice

Green – Basil, spinach, mint, mashed avocado, green tea powder

Foods that contain natural dyes

Some foods that are Red Dye 40-free and contain natural dyes include –

  • Kellogg’s Corn Flakes
  • Mott’s Medleys Fruit Flavored Snacks
  • Post-Shredded Wheat
  • Special K Red Berries Cereal
  • Berry Berry Kix
  • Cheerios
  • Grape-Nuts
  • Kashi GoLean
  • Yoplait yogurts
  • Some Kraft Macaroni & Cheese products
  • Ocean Spray Fruit Flavored Snacks

Final thoughts

Red Dye 40 is a synthetic food color that is derived from coal tars. The food industry adds 15 million pounds of artificial dyes into our food every year. More than 40% of this is Red Dye 40. According to the FDA, Red Dye 40 is safe when used according to the regulations. However, many experts do not agree with this view.

Many studies have also shown that artificial dyes like Red 40 adversely affect children with ADD or ADHD. Red Dye 40 contains p-cresidine, which, according to the US Department of Health, is anticipated to be a human carcinogen. People have reported headaches, uneasiness, upset stomach, and jitteriness after consumption of too much of this dye.

From candies to soda and pickles to barbecue sauces, Red Dye 40 is added to many packaged foods. To avoid the use of artificial colors, look at the labels carefully, avoid processed foods, and use natural coloring agents like turmeric and beets to add color to the food you make.

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