The Danger of Dye

Why do you like some foods, and dislike others? Are you a “texture person” who can’t stand the feel of cottage cheese or yogurt in your mouth, or do you not care at all how a food feels? Do you want your food to be yellow if it is lemon flavored, and orange if it is supposed to taste like oranges? There are a lot of factors that influence food preferences in people, so companies who make food have to create products that not only taste great, but are appealing to all of the senses. Food coloring is a large part of that process.

Food coloring itself is not a new invention, ancient Romans used spices and foods like saffron, carrots, beets, and spinach to color their dishes.  However in 1856, the first synthetic food coloring was created as a by-product of coal processing. The very first foods approved by the USDA to have food coloring added in were cheese and butter. By the year 1900, hundreds of foods, cosmetic products, and and drugs contained synthetic food dyes.

Unfortunately, it was discovered that many of the dyes being used were carcinogenic and contained very dangerous toxins, they were quickly banned by the US government. This set in motion a series of laws passed regarding what types of food coloring could be used, and what couldn’t. Currently, there are several approved dyes for use in the United States. The chart below is copied from the FDA website and shows what are currently approved:

Color Additives Approved for Use in Human Food
Part 74, Subpart A: Color additives subject to batch certification(4)
21 CFR Section Straight Color EEC# Year(2)Approved Uses and Restrictions
§74.101 FD&C Blue No. 1 E133 1969 Foods generally.
1993 Added Mn spec.
§74.102 FD&C Blue No. 2 E132 1987 Foods generally.
§74.203 FD&C Green No. 3 —- 1982 Foods generally.
§74.250 Orange B(3) —- 1966 Casings or surfaces of frankfurters and sausages; NTE(7) 150 ppm (by wt).
§74.302 Citrus Red No. 2 —- 1963 Skins of oranges not intended or used for processing; NTE(7) 2.0 ppm (by wt).
§74.303 FD&C Red No. 3 E127 1969 Foods generally.
§74.340 FD&C Red No. 40(3) E129 1971 Foods generally.
§74.705 FD&C Yellow No. 5 E102 1969 Foods generally.
§74.706 FD&C Yellow No. 6 E110 1986 Foods generally.

There are many more that are approved for use in drugs and cosmetic products, to view all of the approved food additives and dyes, click here.

While the USDA and FDA have approved the above food additives, there are many researchers who are worried about the side effects of ingesting these chemicals. In fact, the European Union has started placing warnings on foods that contain dyes to warn the consumers of health risks! According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), “The three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are contaminated with known carcinogens … Another dye, Red 3, has been acknowledged for years by the Food and Drug Administration to be a carcinogen, yet is still in the food supply.” Below is a summary of studies on food dyes directly from the CSPI report:

Blue 1 was not found to be toxic in key rat and mouse studies, but an unpublished study suggested the possibility that Blue 1 caused kidney tumors in mice, and a preliminary in vitro study raised questions about possible effects on nerve cells. Blue 1 may not cause cancer, but confirmatory studies should be conducted. The dye can cause hypersensitivity reactions.

Blue 2 cannot be considered safe given the statistically significant incidence of tumors, particularly brain gliomas, in male rats. It should not be used in foods. Citrus Red 2, which is permitted only for coloring the skins of oranges not used for processing, is toxic to rodents at modest levels and caused tumors of the urinary bladder and possibly other organs. The dye poses minimal human risk, because it is only used at minuscule levels and only on orange peels, but it still has no place in the food supply.

Green 3 caused significant increases in bladder and testes tumors in male rats. Though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers it safe, this little-used dye must remain suspect until further testing is conducted.

Orange B is approved for use only in sausage casings, but has not been used for many years. Limited industry testing did not reveal any problems.
Red 3 was recognized in 1990 by the FDA as a thyroid carcinogen in animals and is banned in cosmetics and externally applied drugs. All uses of Red 3 lakes (combinations of dyes and salts that are insoluble and used in low-moisture foods) are also banned. However, the FDA still permits Red 3 in ingested drugs and foods, with about 200,000 pounds of the dye being used annually. The FDA needs to revoke that approval.

Red 40, the most-widely used dye, may accelerate the appearance of immune-system tumors in mice. The dye causes hypersensitivity (allergy-like) reactions in a small
number of consumers and might trigger hyperactivity in children. Considering the safety questions and its non-essentiality, Red 40 should be excluded from foods unless and until new tests clearly demonstrate its safety.

Yellow 5 was not carcinogenic in rats, but was not adequately tested in mice. It may be contaminated with several cancer-causing chemicals. In addition, Yellow 5 causes sometimes-severe hypersensitivity reactions in a small number of people and might trigger hyperactivity and other behavioral effects in children. Posing some risks, while serving no nutritional or safety purpose, Yellow 5 should not be allowed in foods.Yellow 6 caused adrenal tumors in animals, though that is disputed by industry and the FDA. It may be contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals and occasionally causes severe hypersensitivity reactions. Yellow 6 adds an unnecessary risk to the food supply.

Virtually all the studies tested individual dyes, whereas many foods and diets contain mixtures of dyes (and other ingredients) that might lead to additive or synergistic effects. In addition to considerations of organ damage, cancer, birth defects, and allergic reactions, mixtures of dyes (and Yellow 5 tested alone) cause hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in some children. Because of that concern, the British government advised companies to stop using most food dyes by the end of 2009.

The most worrisome thing of all? So many foods made specifically for children contain dyes! When buying food for your family, look for alternatives that don’t contain any unnecessary additives. Sure, they may not look as neon and bright, but they will without a doubt be healthier for you. Plus, there still ARE crazy and fun colored foods out there that are naturally colored, all you have to do is look for them. Natural food colorings often appear on ingredient labels as beets, turmeric root, annatto, saffron, paprika, elderberry juice, and caramel coloring (made from caramelized sugar).

If you are baking or cooking and want to color something without using spices or other food products, there are natural dyes you can purchase! Neither Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s carry products that use artificial dyes and depending on the location, they may even sell all-natural food colorings. Other all-natural food coloring options are:

By Courtney Perry

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