Food Dyes: Safe or Scary?

Filed under: Opinions

If your food is colorful, does that mean it's unsafe? Credit: D Sharon Pruitt, Flickr

Yoplait Trix Wildberry Blue Yogurt is colored with Blue 1 and Red 40. Kraft's Macaroni & Cheese contains Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. Pepsi and Coke use caramel color. If you and your kids are consuming prepackaged and processed food, chances are you're eating and drinking food coloring, be it natural (pigments derived from plants or animals) or artificial (synthesized in a lab). Any food dye that is used in the U.S. has had to pass muster with the FDA, but some of our approved dyes have been outright banned in Europe. So are these added colorings truly safe?

Artificial Colorings: Two British studies have found that artificial food dyes, in tandem with the preservative sodium benzoate, cause hyperactivity and other behavior problems in many children. And studies have suggested that Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, and Yellow 6 all can cause cancer. Artificial food dyes have been blacklisted in the U.K. and parts of Europe, but not here. In the U.K, a McDonald's strawberry sundae gets its color from strawberries, while in the U.S. the sundae's color is from Red 40. Be on the safe side and avoid artificial colorings altogether.

Beta-Carotene: Beta-carotene, which the body converts to Vitamin A, is used to give an orange-yellow tint to such foods as margarine, breakfast cereals, and some beverages. It is a natural compound often derived from algae, and is safe when used as a coloring.

Annatto: Sourced from the red seed of a tropical tree, annatto commonly appears in butter and cheeses to make them yellow/orange. It's considered an antioxidant, so it helps rid the body of damaging free radicals and also aids immune function. It's safe to consume.

Caramel Color: Used in cola and many other foods including canned meats and baked goods, caramel color comes from carbohydrates that are heated until you have what basically amounts to burnt sugar. A study has suggested that the caramel color in cola may cause an elevation in blood pressure, due to the advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, present in heated carbs. It certainly wouldn't hurt to reduce consumption of this natural coloring by cutting back on cola -- doing so will also help your family drop some unwanted pounds.

Jennifer Schonborn is a holistic nutrition counselor, certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. Sign up for her newsletter and free consultation at

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.