Looking at a long list of ingredients for foods like Holiday Oreos, Pop Tarts and Nutrigrain strawberry bars is an exhausting exercise. Which ingredients are okay to eat and which aren’t? Compared with all-natural food ingredients, food dyes like red dye no. 40 seem unhealthy. Is it as bad as it seems? The results are mixed.
Red dye: The good, the bad and the unhealthy
It’s worth noting that we haven’t been using food dye in products for that long. The spike in the number of foods with artificial dyes like Red dye no. 40 came in the 1950s. Think of delicious treats like red velvet cake: The recipe was adapted by an extracts company in Texas looking for a way to incorporate more food dye into baked goods. It seemed like the perfect solution: Red dye was cost-effective for companies and tasty for consumers. In addition, adding food dyes to cereals like Trix created fun colors that appealed to children.
Then in the 1970s, an allergist in a California hospital argued that removing artificial dyes from diets would decrease hyperactivity in children. Consumers were shocked. Was red dye harming their children? The doctor used anecdotal evidence to make his case. Two decades later, in 1990, more evidence came out from the FDA that red dye was harmful in high doses. This led the Food and Drug Administration to ban red dye no. 3, which was linked to cancer in lab animals. However, instead of using plant-based colors, food companies switched to red dye no. 40. The question remains: Is it safe to eat?
It’s a complicated answer. Part of the issue, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is how much red dye we ingest. US consumers eat as much as 52 mg of red dye per day, the FDA noted in 2014 – which is more than three times the recommended amount. Red dye is in a long list of products – from candies like M&Ms and Twizzlers to drinks like Gatorade. Only a small percentage of the population is allergic to red dye. A meta-analysis in 2012 – in which several studies were reviewed by researchers – found that children who cut out artificial dyes from their diets saw fewer symptoms of hyperactivity.
Researchers found that food dye can contribute to hyperactivity in children.
As a parent, what can you do? Start with reading food labels. With the organic and all-natural food movement over the past few years, many producers have brought many dye-free foods to market. Seek out snacks that are made with all-natural dyes drawn from real food sources. Food brand Unreal candies make M&M lookalikes, both in classic and peanut, that use natural color. Twizzler fans will like Panda licorice chews. Haribo gummy bear diehards will love Black Forest Organic Gummy Bears.
For baking fans, you can take a note from chefs like Pamela Moxley, who uses roasted beets for her red velvet cake. If you want to give it a try, make this red velvet cake with no food dye from Food52. If your kids wrinkle their noses at the prospect of vegetables in their dessert, JR Watkins offers dye-free food coloring with color coming from plants and spices.
Who knows – you might grow to like the dye-free foods better than their originals!