Artificial Food Coloring: Harmless or Hazardous?

Artificial Food Coloring: Harmless or Hazardous?

Artificial food colorings have made a pretty bad name for themselves over the years. But what do they actually do? What do we really know about these additives, which can be found in near every processed food we consume?


Artificial food colorings were first synthesized from coal tar. When they were developed, (around turn of the twentieth century,) these dyes were intended as a safe alternative to the dangerous natural colorings commonly employed by manufacturers at the time (which contained, among other harmful ingredients, mercury, copper and arsenic).

Despite their noble start, artificial food dyes have a storied, alarming history within the United States. The “Wiley Act” set the first restrictions on color additives in 1906. Since, a great number of artificial dyes (including yellows #1, #2, #3, and red #2) have been shown harmful, and subsequently banned.

ADHD in Children

An extremely large number of people believe artificial food coloring causes ADHD in children. A 2007 study, conducted by the University of Southampton, linked six commonly used dyes to hyperactivity in children. A product’s use of these dyes, which are now known as the “Southampton Six,” requires special labeling in the United Kingdom.

The “Southhampton Six” are:

  • Red 40
  • Ponceau 4R
  • Yellow #5
  • Yellow #6
  • Quinoline Yellow
  • Carmoisine (E102)

The FDA has been reluctant to follow the UK’s lead as there exists very little else in the form of scientific evidence supporting the claims that artificial dyes cause ADHD.

Other Serious Health Concerns

The FDA has approved seven artificial food dyes for human consumption. Of these, three—red #40, yellow #5, and yellow #6—make up 90% of all the artificial dye used in food. Each has been implicated as a health risk.

  • Red #40 is the most commonly employed artificial food color. It is more or less ubiquitous, and can be found in, among other products, maraschino cherries, cereal bars, cherry pie mix, toaster tarts, grenadine, fruit snacks, yogurt, breakfast cereals, jams, jellies, ice cream, beef jerky, salad dressings, potato chips, corn chips, and baked goods. It is suspected to cause tumors of the immune system. The UK recommends against its consumption by children.
  • Yellow #5 is used in many of the same products as red #40. Benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl are two carcinogens found in yellow #5. It has been linked to asthma, insomnia, thyroid tumors, and chromosomal damage. It is banned in Norway and Austria.
  • Yellow #6 also contains benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl, and has been shown to cause eczema, and tumors in the thyroid and kidneys of laboratory animals. Like yellow #5, the dye is banned in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

The four remaining approved artificial food colorings are blue #1, blue #2, red #3 and green #3.

Significant health concerns (of the same variety listed above) surround blue #1, blue #2 and red #3. Green #3 is banned in the European Economic Communities.



CATEGORIES: Toxic, Health Risks, Food Coloring, Artificial