A Dangerous Rainbow: Artificial Colors and Dyes in Our Food


Red, orange, yellow, green and blue – all beautiful colors of the rainbow. And while beautiful in their own right, these hues have no place in our food when done so with artificial colors. Dyes have been used in food products for over 100 years! Certain colors can be added to make food more appealing. For example, red dye can be added to meat to make it look fresher and healthier. Additionally, yellow can be added in to make cheese products look more like real cheese, or just to intensify the color to appeal to our eyes. Even blue dye is added to some brands of marshmallows to make them brighter!


Some History

Back in 1900, there were no regulations and there were over eighty dyes used in food, In fact, the same dye used to color clothes could be used to color candy! In 1906, the first comprehensive legislation was passed and set some guidelines. Almost thirty years later in 1938, additional legislation was passed and certification was finally required. Over the years, colors have been delisted because of evidence of causing illness, possible harm and resulting in tumors in rats.²

Interestingly, colors can be named ‘FD and C’ (Food Drug and Cosmetic) with or without the addition of “lake”. The addition of “lake” to a FD and C color means that alumina hydrate was mixed in to make the colors insoluble.

Since originally adding dyes to food, colors have been delisted from the acceptable list as being approved for food and/or cosmetics. There is still a great debate as to the safety of colors, some seeming to cause more harm than others. Internationally, there are discrepancies, as some countries ban colors that others allow, which makes international commerce a little more tricky. Some companies actually make food in the United States with colors, while their same product is made without artificial colors that are banned in Europe.

Some Disturbing Findings

In a study on consumption by children of yellow dye, such behavioral changes as irritability, restlessness and sleep disturbances were found. The children who reacted the most to the food dye were also found to have allergies of some kind (such as asthma, eczema or allergic runny nose). Animal studies have also shown some food dyes "interfere with chemical communication in the brain and normal development.”¹ Many colors have been linked to tumors, cancers and other ill-effects on the organs of rats. Some dyes are even known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents).²

While there are many more, below are three colors that are commonly found in food products, their sourcing, a few examples of where they can be found and some documented side effects. There is so much information out there now about these colors, you can be your own advocate by following the research and reading food labels.


The Main Colors

FD and C Blue No.1 (Brilliant Blue) – coal-tar derivative, triphenylmethane; used as a coloring in bottled soft drinks, gelatin desserts (think national brand of marshmallows), candy, cereals and some hair colorings and other cosmetics. May cause allergic reactions and has shown to produce malignant tumors at the site of injection and by ingestion in rats.²

FD and C Red No. 3 (Erythrosin) – cherry red coal-tar derivative; used in toothpaste, ice cream, hot dogs, barbeque potato chips, candy and cherry pie mix. Has been determined a carcinogen and may interfere with transmission of nerve impulses to the brain.²

FD and C Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine) – lemon yellow coal-tar derivative; used in breakfast cereals, imitation strawberry, ice cream, spaghetti, mac and cheese products, and puddings. Also found in hair rinses and bath salts. Causes allergic reactions in persons sensitive to aspirin.² Can promote zinc deficiency and affect behavior in some children.¹


A New Rainbow

Many companies are realizing that consumers want less artificial ingredients and more naturally derived ones. Mother Nature has always given us a myriad of colors, from deep reddish purple in beets to bright yellow in the spice of turmeric. Because of the consumer demand, these companies are turning to less toxic dyes such as those from fruits, vegetables and spices. We can vote with our wallet and purchase products that only contain naturally derived colors from fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices and do not have dangerous side effects.

Yes, food can be more appealing with different colors, to brighten and enhance the visual appearance. However, there is a risk involved with these various hues. Children are often the target of these colors, in cereals, snacks and various other food products. And it is the children that have smaller and more sensitive organs, needing to process these chemicals. Maybe a colored candy here and there won’t be the difference in overall health, but these colors are found in much more than candy. Kraft was recently under great scrutiny for adding Yellow No. 5 to their product here in the U.S. and not using in their product abroad. Some brands of granola bars or fruit snacks also contain color, and it just doesn’t seem worth the risk when there are perfectly natural alternatives.

Additionally, The Nourished Seedling offers some great recipes that use natural colors - check them out here!

Looking for naturally colored sprinkles or candy? Here are some great ideas:

For further reading:

Article from Dr. Mercola

Article from Special Education

Environmental Working Group (EWG) also has info on artificial colors and dyes.


¹Weintraub, Skye. Allergies and Holistic Healing. Woodland Publishing: Pleasant Grove, UT. 1997.

²Winter, Ruth. A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives. Three Rivers Press: New York. 2004.


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