Do or Dye: How to Avoid Artificial Food Colorings

By Michael A. Smith, MD

Recently, while dining out, I watched my nephew inhale a hot fudge sundae topped with a beautiful, bright red, mysterious syrup. I asked the cashier what the syrup was made of and she said it was a natural strawberry puree. I didn't believe her. When I got home, I did a quick search and found that the restaurant in question wasn’t using natural strawberries. They were using FD&C Red No. 40.

This piqued my curiosity. Which other popular restaurants were using artificial colors on popular menu items? Much to my dismay, I found that many restaurants in the U.S. are indeed using artificial dyes. But what I discovered next was really surprising: This same exact restaurant chain uses red beet juice in Europe to color the same exact type of sundae.

Apparently, the European Medicines Agency has declared most chemical food dyes as dangerous. Good for them, but what about us?

Is the FDA Changing its Policy on Artificial Colors?

The federal government “claims” they have been cracking down on artificial food dyes for more than a century. It is true that in 1950, many children became sick after eating Halloween candy that contained Orange No. 1 dye and the FDA banned it after testing suggested it was toxic. In 1976, the agency also banned Red No. 2 because it was suspected to be carcinogenic.

Sounds like they’re doing their job, right? Not really. They still allow red and orange dyes. Instead of Red No. 2, a carcinogen, it’s now Red No. 40 … which is also likely a carcinogen. Nice job … swapping out one carcinogen for another carcinogen. Go figure.

Over the past year or so, the FDA has considered making changes to its food dye policy. They’re rethinking dye safety due to recent studies that have shown that artificial food dyes can cause excitability and behavioral problems in children. But, of course, instead of just changing their policy and labeling all food dyes as dangerous, they first have to check with their panel of “experts.”1,2

Here’s our take: Don’t wait for your government to tell you that food dyes are dangerous. There’s enough evidence right now to make that decision for yourself. Bottom line is this: Artificial food dyes might make your food look prettier, but they add no flavor and they’re really bad for your health. You don’t need a panel to come to this conclusion, so please don’t wait for one.

Foods That are Loaded with Artificial Dyes

Here’s a list of the most common foods that contain artificial dyes:

  • Cereals
  • Chips & Salty Snacks
  • Cookies & Baked Goods
  • Candies & Confections
  • Dairy Products
  • Energy Drinks & Soda
  • Fruit Punch & Juices
When you look at this list, it’s pretty obvious that you should avoid these calorie-heavy, nutrient-poor foods anyway. But let’s be real, sometimes kids (and even adults) want to eat these items, and once in a while — like on birthdays or anniversaries — it’s normal to want to indulge a bit.

However, the best thing to do is to make your own snacks for these special, rare occasions. If you want to brighten up the colors for some reason, there are natural alternatives to dangerous food dyes. Check out the table below for guidance. It lists the common food dyes, their dangerous health effects, and some natural alternatives that are much safer.

Artificial Food Dyes: The Dangers & Natural Alternatives

Artificial Food Dye The Potential Dangers* The Natural Alternatives**3-11
FD&C Red No. 40 Possible Carcinogen
Potential Hyperactivity (kids)
Potential Behavioral Problems (kids)
Annatto (seed of the achiote) – E160b
Beet Juice
Pomegranate Juice
Saffron – E160a
Paprika – E160c
Cochineal -- E120
FD&C Red No. 3 Possible Carcinogen
Reported Thyroid Problems

Annatto (seed of the achiote) – E160b
Beet Juice
Pomegranate Juice
Saffron – E160a
Paprika – E160c
Cochineal – E210
FD&C Yellow No. 5 Reported Allergies
Reported Thyroid Problems
Potential Asthma (kids)
Potential Hyperactivity (kids)
Turmeric – E100
Dried Mustard Seed Powder
FD&C Yellow No. 6 Possible Carcinogen
Reported Allergies
Reported Thyroid Problems
Potential Asthma (kids)
Turmeric – E100
Dried Mustard Seed Powder
FD&C Green No. 3 Possible Carcinogen

Chlorella – E140
FD&C Blue No. 1 Potential Asthma (kids) Butterfly pea
Elderberry Juice
FD&C Blue No. 2 Potential Asthma (kids) Butterfly pea
Elderberry Juice
D&C Yellow No.11 Reports of Dermatitis Turmeric– E100
Dried Mustard Seed Powder
Orange B Reported Allergies
Potential Asthma (kids)
Annatto (seed of the achiote) – E160b
Saffron – E160a + Turmeric
Citrus Red 2
Cancer in Animals Saffron – E160a + Turmeric
Saffron – E160a
Paprika – E160c

*To be fair and objective, the health dangers of artificial food dyes come from small laboratory and animal studies and in most cases the evidence is anecdotal. These are only potential dangers and are not conclusive.

**The number next to the natural alternative is the product number for a pre-made color derived from the ingredient. If it doesn’t have a number, you’ll have to purchase the raw ingredient and liquefy it with a juicer. Yes, this is more effort but it’s also safe!

Banned Food Dyes in the U.S. — But Be Careful in Other Countries

The following artificial dyes have been banned in the U.S. because they have been found to be either carcinogenic or nerve toxins.

  • FD&C Red No. 2
  • FD&C Red No. 4
  • FD&C Red No. 32‎
  • FD&C Orange No. 1
  • FD&C Orange No. 2‎
  • FD&C Yellow No. 1, 2, 3, and 4
  • FD&C Violet No. 1

Do you avoid artificial colors and dyes yourself? Have you experienced any of the negative effects we’ve listed above? Have you tried any of these natural alternatives? Tell us in the comments!


  1. F.D.A. Panel to Consider Warnings for Artificial Food Colorings. By Gardiner Harris. New York Times. Published: March 29, 2011
  5. Pediatrics. Vol. 127 No. 6 June 1, 2011 pp. e1575 -e1584 (doi: 10.1542/peds.2009-2206)
  6. Nutr Rev. 2011 Jul;69(7):385-91.
  7. Environ Health Perspect. 2010 October;118(10):A428.
  8. The Lancet. 370(9598):1560–1567.
  9. Food Standards Agency. 2007-09-11. Retrieved 2008-04-10.
  10. Food Chem Toxicol. 2011 Aug;49(8):1870-6.


Rebecca said...

Thanks for spreading the word! Yep, the largest food manufacturers in the US are cheating on us with Europe. Tweet them for Food Revolution Day on May 19th to let them know you will vote with your dollars. All approved synthetic dyes in the US are made of *petroleum*, aside from those derived from plant sources, and must be labelled specifically by name (red 40, yellow 5, blue 1, etc.). Be careful with annatto though- lots of kids and adults like myself have a bad reaction to annatto just as with red 40 and other synthetic dyes. I blog about our own family's experiences and collect guest bloggers perspectives to spread awareness at I have a DFD Facebook page where folks can come to get help and connect.

Anonymous said...

Additive Alert by Julie Eady is a really comprehensive read on additives that are still permitted & used in Australia when already banned in other countries.

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