Those looking to avoid sugar know to stay far away from candy. But did you know there’s another chemical in those Skittles that may cause you problems? Flavorless color additives—namely Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6—are often used in foods to add more fun and excitement for the consumer (would you really want to eat clear Twizzlers?). And while the FDA says it’s safe to consume food dyes in small amounts, it’s important to be aware of the possible health ramifications from ingesting too much.
In this article we’ll focus specifically on Red 40, a petroleum-based dark red dye found in candy, cereals, condiments and more. Remember that food is morally neutral, and you should detach from feelings of shame or “badness” no matter what you eat.
Red Dye Allergy Symptoms
Red dye and other flavorless color additives have been approved by the FDA, but there are some caveats. In order to get FDA approval, the dye must specify: 1. The types of food it will be used in, 2. The maximum amount allowed to be used, and 3. How the color additives should be identified on the food label. There are also specific guidelines around the amount one should consume in order to be safe. The current acceptable daily intake (ADI) of Red Dye 40 is 3.2 milligrams per pound.
Unfortunately, some people just have an intolerance to red dye no matter how much they’re consuming. While this is commonly thought of as an allergy, it’s actually a food intolerance. The problem is that symptoms are so widespread and similar to other illnesses, it’s hard to diagnose unless it manifests as something severe like rashes or even anaphylactic shock.
If any of the following symptoms occur, you may want to evaluate how much red dye you or your child is taking in every day, or get tested for an intolerance:
- Skin reactions (hives, itching, swelling)
- Gastrointestinal issues (bloating, diarrhea, vomiting)
- Respiratory problems
- Persistent cold or flu-like symptoms
Long-Term Effects of Food Dyes
Although red dye and other color additives are widely used, there has been research to support that they might not be the best choice for long-term health. A 2012 study on the toxicology of food dyes found evidence that many approved dyes, namely Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, contain benzidine or other carcinogens.
While people often associate ADHD symptoms with sugar consumption, according to this 2020 study on the effects of synthetic food dyes in children, it’s actually the chemicals in Red 3, Red Dye 40 and Yellow 5 that have been linked to increased hyperactivity in kids. Red Dye 40 has also been linked to a depletion of zinc, iron and other minerals that help growth and development in children. It can also lead to hypersensitivity, which causes inflammation and possible allergic reactions.
Products That Contain Red Dye 40
It may seem obvious what types of foods have red dye in them, but it’s a bit more insidious than that. According to a 2016 study about artificial food colors in grocery store products marketed to children, 29.8% of products contain Red 40. It’s also found in drugstore products like toothpaste, makeup and vitamins.
Here are the most common foods with red dye:
- Dairy products (yogurt, pudding, ice cream)
- Baked goods
- Chewing gums
- Gelatin-based products
- Beverages (juice drinks, soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, protein powders)
- Breakfast cereals
Some surprising foods that contain red dye are “healthy” breakfast bars, pizza sauces and even tomato-based condiments.
How to Identify Red Dye 40 on Food Labels
Even though red dye (and other color additives) are in a lot of products, there is a surefire way to identify them—as long as you don’t mind standing a little longer in the grocery aisle reading the nutrition label. The FDA requires Red Dye 40 to be named on the ingredients list of all food products that use it, including its many alternate names. You can find them below:
- Red 40
- Red 40 Lake
- FD&C Red No. 40
- FD&C Red No. 40 Aluminum Lake
- Allura Red AC
- CI Food Red 17
- INS No. 129
You should also look out for Blue 1 and Yellow 5, which are the second and third most common color additives next to Red Dye 40.
Learn More as a Health Coach
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