Food Coloring Additives: Let’s Get Black and White


Think back to when you were a child, and mom was making Christmas candy and cookies. Perhaps you recall the little bottles with with wizard-like caps, each colored to match the playful liquid inside. The irony is that those particular happy memories surrounded playing with and consuming some very dangerous chemicals.

Fast forward just a few years. During the fiscal year of 2002, the FDA certified batches representing 16.5 million pounds of color additives, most of it for use in our food. Food coloring increases sales, hence the use of such chemicals, and the repeated submission of petitions by food companies to the FDA for approval of their latest, greatest synthetic profit drivers. These additives are used to either give foods the colors that consumers expect to see, such as the “painting” of farm-raised salmon with Red 40 to insure the pink hue, or to make certain foods “fun” for consumption, like the multi-colored, multi-additive M&M candy.

Man-made color additives are labeled “certifiable,” and the good news is that they must be listed on the label when used in foods. The “dyes” are water-soluble while the “lakes” are not, determining which versions are chosen for particular applications. Most food colorings were previously made from coal tar, which might sound unhealthy to you. No worries though, they are now made from petroleum (sarcasm intended). Should you be eating them? What do you think? Here’s the actual chemical name for Red 40: 6-hydroxy-5-[(2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo]-2-naphthalenesulfonic acid.

If you surf the internet for articles on food colorings, you’ll find some that state there are nine certifiable color additives. Try the next page of Google listings, and you’ll come across articles that state there are only seven. Still another will state a different number. Which articles are correct? All of them … at the time of their publication. There is something to be learned here: the list changes, and it changes with our level of experience and education, and the quantity and quality of our research.

Let’s talk about the quality of the research. Guess who conducts the original studies? The companies petitioning the FDA for approval, of course! They created the substance. Check out the list of the companies who have submitted their additives in the last two years. You see, it’s not until after the substance hits the marketplace that adverse effects and reports drive a large number of unbiased scientists to conduct clinical research. And this process takes time – time that you spend consuming the approved product.

There are actually seven certified color additives currently used in our food. Here’ the list: (by the way, the “FD&C” means that the color is for use in foods, drugs, and cosmetics)

  • FD&C Blue #1
  • FD&C Blue #2
  • FD&C Green #3
  • FD&C Red #3 (Erythrosine)
  • FD&C Yellow #5 (Tartrazine)
  • FD&C Yellow #6
  • FD&C Red #40

Although the FDA does not consider there to be enough conclusive research yet, Blue #1 has anecdotal evidence linking it to cancer, Blue #2 has caused brain tumors in mice, Red #3 has caused thyroid tumors in rats, and Yellow #6 has been correlated to adrenal gland and kidney tumors, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the carcinogenic chemicals that comprise it.

Red #40, the most popular of all food color additives, was introduced in the eighties to replace Amaranth, which caused problems as extensive as birth defects and fetal death. Has Red #40 faired any better? You’d think so, with the FDA leaving it on the approved list. However, Red #40 has been linked with cancer in mice, and is completely banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, and Norway!

Am I crazy to think that this list should and will look different in the near (or unfortunately distant) future? I think not. Take a look at the additives (and this is just the certified food color additives – there is a host of others) that used to be on the approved list:

  • FD&C Green #1
  • FD&C Green #2
  • FD&C Red #1
  • FD&C Red #2
  • FD&C Red #3 Lake
  • FD&C Red #4
  • FD&C Violet #1

Take a look for yourself at the FDA’s Color Additive Status List. These color additives have been removed for reasons spanning ADD, asthma, birth defects, fetal death, nausea, vomiting, and cancer, a few of which have also been linked to currently approved additives. In fact, In June of 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the FDA for a complete ban on erythrosine (Red #3) in the United States. Remember, Red #3 Lake (the non-water soluble form) has already been banned. You see, what these do to our bodies doesn’t change based on our knowledge of the facts. Our knowledge of the facts just change. How about leaving them out of your diet now, and avoiding the risk?

The FDA status list should be regarded more like a timeline of their education, as opposed to something with the authority to dictate what you allow yourself to consume. Do you want to wait on the FDA to tell you that something is dangerous? Consider this, drug-coloring agent Orange #1 was approved in 1906. It was finally banned 60 years later, in 1966. I think I’ll just just eat natural foods, thank you.

Of course these color additives are used in candy, but if you start reading labels, you’ll be amazed at the frequency with which you come across them. They will pop up in gelatin, beverages, baked goods, sausages, pet food, ketchup, chips, and even salmon, as previously mentioned.

Regarding additives’ effect on ADD and ADHD, the September 2007 issue of the Lancet Medical Journal contains a fairly conclusive study, performed by Stevenson and colleagues of the University of Southampton. Over 300 children between the ages of 3 and 8 were given either an additive-filled or placebo beverage during concentration and behavioral testing. The researchers found a significant negative behavioral impact on the additive-administered group compared to the placebo group. With all the research that has shown ADD and ADHD to be stimulated by color additives, some have proposed the acrostic be redefined as Artificial Diet Disorder. There are a variety of factors contributing to this issue, but artificial chemicals should definitely be avoided as they are one of the contributing factors.

In summary, keep your diet simple, and natural. It used to be said, if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, chances are you shouldn’t be eating it. However, considering the shortening of such harmful ingredient names to labels as simple as Red 40, that advice is no longer enough. If you didn’t know about food color additives before, you certainly do now, and the responsibility to avoid them rests on your shoulders. Avoid the obviously artificially colored foods, and check labels on everything else before consuming or giving to your kids. Taking these steps could certainly go a long way toward improving your own quality of life, as well as your children’s.