Red Dye in Food: Why We Should Ban It + How to Avoid It

by | Jun 3, 2024 | Blog, Nutrition

I have written about the risks of eating ultra-processed foods in this article. One of the major issues with these foods is synthetic food dyes, including red dye No. 3. Synthetic food dyes are artificial additives in many processed foods and beverages to provide a nice, bright colour. 

Though red dye and other synthetic food dyes may give a fun colour to some foods, these can be incredibly harmful to your health. They may increase hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children and may even increase the risk of cancer. Though these synthetic colours have been banned in some countries, they are still widely used in the US and Canada. 

There may be some hope for improving our food quality. California has recently become the first state in the US to ban red dye No. 3 in food. Along with increased research evidence, this puts increased pressure on the FDA to consider a nationwide ban.

In this article, I want to talk about red dye in food. We will talk about the health risks of red dye No. 3 and other synthetic food dyes in food and beverages. I will go over current efforts for a ban. Finally, I will share my best tips to avoid red dye in food and improve your health.

What Is Red Dye in Food?

Red dye is a synthetic food dye and colour additive used in food and beverages. It is made from petroleum and it is one of the nice colour additives certified and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (1). It’s also allowed in Canada. It is generally banned in the European Union, except for some cherry-flavored products. It is also banned in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and China (2, 3). As you will learn later in this article, things may be changing in North America too.

Red dye No. 3 is used in confections, beverages, cereals, ice cream cones, frozen dairy desserts, popsicles, frostings & icings. It provides foods and drinks with a bright, cherry-red color. Besides food, red dye No. 3 is also used in cosmetics, such as skin care products and lipstick, as well as pain-relief ointments and other topical medications.

The Problem with Red Dye In Food

According to the food database of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), over 2,900 food products are made with red dye No. 3 (4). Yet, red dye may pose some serious health risks. 

According to a 2012 review published in the International Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health, red dye may contribute to an increased risk of cancer (5). Studies on the connection between red dye and cancer are limited and are done on rats. It seems to be an animal carcinogen but research hasn’t been done on humans yet. The FDA claims that the risk of cancer is fewer-than one in 100,000 Americans (6). Thus red dye is still allowed in food.

Though we don’t have enough research on understanding the potential carcinogenic effects of red dye in food, we have more evidence on its potential health risk on behavioral and mental health, especially in children. A 2007 randomized, double-blinded, place-controlled trial published in The Lancet has found that food additives may increase the risk of hyperactive behavior in children between ages 3 and 9 (7). A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has also found that synthetic food dyes may increase hyperactivity and symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children (8).

A 2012 study published in Neurotherapeutics has found that synthetic food dyes may affect children’s behavior and increase the risk of symptoms of ADHD (9). A 2022 review of animal studies published in Environmental Health has also found that synthetic food dyes may affect cognition, memory, and learning (10).

A Health Effects Assessment done by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the Children’s Environmental Health Center, and the California Protection Agency urges the FDA to re-evaluate their stance on red dye No. 3 and other synthetic food dyes based on recent research evidence (11). Now that California has taken a stand, we have more hope for progress.

Banning red dye No. 30 and other synthetic food dyes in food is, of course, particularly important for our children who are at risk of developing ADHD and other behavioral or cognitive issues. It is also critical for lower-income communities, especially children in those areas. According to the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey, people in lower-income communities and Black Americans consume more food with synthetic food dyes (12). This is not surprising as those with lower economic status are more likely to rely on cheap, low-quality, ultra-processed foods. While banning synthetic food dyes cannot solve economic inequalities, ensuring that all food is safe and banning harmful ingredients, including red dye No. 3 and other synthetic food dyes in foods, can reduce health risks and poor health outcomes.

Banning Red Dye in Food

Now that you understand the potential problem with red dye No. 3 in food, let’s talk about some potentially positive developments. There is increasing pressure on the FDA in the US to ban the use of red dye in food. Why is it happening now? Great question.
Understanding the potential health risks of red dye in food, California became the first state to ban red dye No. 3 and three other food additives in the fall of 2023 (13, 14). The other substances banned include brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, and propylparaben. 

Unfortunately, the law won’t be implemented until 2027. However, it’s a start. This is the first state to ban red dye, but it’s already creating undeniable pressure in other states and on the FDA to take nationwide action in the US. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Public Interest Research Group, and the Consumer Federation of America filed a petition with the FDA in 2022 to ban red dye No. 3 in food (15). The ban in California may support their efforts.

This is not the first talk about banning red dye No. 3. Back in 1990, the FDA stopped the use of red dye No. 3 in cosmetics, medicated ointment, lotions, and other topical medications due to a rat study that linked the synthetic color to cancer (16). As you already know, since then, many other studies support the evidence that not only topically applying but also consuming red dye No. 3 may increase health issues, including behavioral issues and cancer (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Yet, over 30 years have passed, and red dye No. 3 is still being used. 

It seems that the vibrant red colour in food is more important than our health. Considering current research evidence, there is a reason to stay on the side of precaution and remove red dye No. 3 from our food and beverages. The FDA is currently reviewing the petition filed by consumer advocacy groups to ban red dye No. 3 in food (17). Besides red dye No. 3, CSPI is also fighting to ban other food coloring, including Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, Green 3, Blue 1, Blue 2, and Orange B (18). Similar efforts are ongoing in Canada as well, there is a current petition for banning red dye in food here too (19).

(Not so fun fact: how many states do you think have banned lead in cookware?  

If you said one, then you are correct.  In March 2024, the State of Washington enacted legislation to ban lead in cookware, the first and only state thus far to take such a step.  The ban comes into effect in January 2026.  Hard to believe, isn’t it, for as long as we’ve known about the health hazards related to lead, it took this long for ONE state to ban it in cookware? Along with red dye, lead is also a risk factor for ADHD.)

Other Synthetic Food Dyes in Food

Other synthetic food dyes in food and beverages include (1):

  • FD&C Blue No. 1, commonly used in confections, beverages, cereals, frozen dairy desserts, popsicles, frostings & icings
  • FD&C Blue No. 2, commonly used in snacks, cereal, baked goods, ice cream, yogurt, and confections
  • FD&C Green No. 3, commonly used in drink mixers, baked goods, cereal, ice cream, and sherbet
  • FD&C Red No. 40, commonly used in dairy products, puddings, confections, gelation, cereal, and various beverages
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5, commonly used in cereals, snacks, beverages, yogurt, condiments, baked goods, and confections
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6, commonly used in cereals, snack foods, crackers, baked goods, dessert powders, gelatin, sauces, and various beverages
  • Orange B, which is only approved for use in hot dog and sausage casings
  • Citrus Red No. 2, which is only approved for use to color orange peels

How to Avoid Red Dye in Food

While banning red dye No. 3 in food and beverages is up to the FDA in the US and other similar governing bodies in other countries, you don’t have to wait powerlessly and consume red dye No. 3. Here is what you can do to avoid red dye in food:

  • Eat a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet. Consuming whole foods means that you are eating real food that doesn’t have synthetic food dyes or other ingredients. Eat lots of greens, vegetables, sprouts, herbs, spices, fruits, nuts, seeds, grass-fed meat, pasture-raised eggs and poultry, wild-caught fish and seafood, and wild game. Focus on home-cooked meals and avoid eating out, especially fast food.
  • Read labels. If you consume processed or packaged foods, avoid ultra-processed foods and read the labels carefully. Seeing ‘natural’ or ‘clean’ on the label doesn’t always mean it’s free from artificial ingredients. Reading the labels helps to spot anything problematic, including red dye No. 3, other synthetic food dyes, other artificial ingredients, ingredients you may be sensitive or allergic to, other problematic ingredients. If you are in doubt, call the company with questions.
  • Pay particular attention to your children’s diet. Children are at great risk from experiencing behavioral and cognitive issues from red dye No. 3 and other synthetic food dyes. Pay particular attention to their diet. Make home-cooked meals and, if possible, pack their school lunches. Ensure that their meals and snacks are from nutrient-dense, whole foods. Read labels carefully when it comes to any packaged snacks and food. Aim for organic products with only a few ingredients.
  • Do your best. Mistakes can happen. Sometimes, we are served food at events or find ourselves in situations when we can’t control our food 100%. It’s okay. Pay attention to your diet as much as possible. If you end up consuming something less than ideal, move on to the next meal. Focus on detoxification strategies and support your gut with probiotics to allow your body to recover from foods that don’t serve you the best.
  • Advocate for better food. Talk to your family, friends, and community about better and safer food options. Support your local farmers. Stay informed. Sign petitions to urge our government to ban red dye No. 3 and other potentially harmful ingredients in our food.

Next Steps

If you are dealing with any chronic health issues and need advice on how to improve your nutrition and health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance. You may book your consultation here

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