Tastes Nutritious

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Are artificial food colors damaging our health?


Artificial Colours

In the US there are currently 7 food colors which are approved by the FDA. These include: blue no. 1, blue no. 2, green no. 3, red no. 3, red no. 40, yellow no. 5 and yellow no. 6. These colors have been deemed as safe but increasing amount of studies show that they have significant health implications especially for children. Link to hyperactivity and ADHD, cell damage and cancer are the most cited of these health impacts.

Link to hyperactivity and ADHD in children

The most notable study in this area was conducted by the Southampton University in 2007. This study looked at 153 three year olds and 144 eight year olds with a range of behaviors to represent the wider population. The results showed that “for a large group of children in the general population, consumption of certain mixtures of artificial food colors and benzoate preservative can influence their hyperactive behavior.” The colors tested in the study became known as the ‘Southampton six’ and include:  the sunset yellow (E110 / yellow no.6), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129 / red no. 40), tartrazine (E102 / yellow no.5) and ponceau 4R (E124). As a result of this study the Food Standards Agency in the UK recommended to phase out the use of these six colors. It became mandatory to include on package of the products which use these colors a message to say that “‘name or E number of the colour(s)’: may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”.

However 3 of these ‘Southampton six’ colors namely red no.40, yellow no. 5 and yellow no. 6 are still approved for use in the US. Although American companies were quick to change their ingredients and exclude these colors from products aimed at European markets, this change was never implemented in the US. For example MacDonald’s uses synthetic color red no.40 to color their strawberry sauce yet in the UK MacDonald’s uses actual strawberries. The Betty Crocker’s red velvet cake mix is colored in the US with red no. 40 and in the UK with natural paprika extract and carmine.

Cell damage

Another study published in January 2013 in Food and Chemical Toxicology highlighted that contrary to the earlier beliefs, blue no. 1 can be absorbed into the bloodstream through skin, tongue and digestive tract. This is an important finding because many previous studies have shown that blue color once in our bodies inhibits cell respiration. This in turn interferes in the way that cells create energy and causes cell damage. In 2003 FDA issued a warning on the use of blue no. 1 in enteral feeding solutions citing “blue discoloration of the skin, urine, feces, or serum and some serious complications such as refractory hypotension, metabolic acidosis and death”. Yet the blue no.1 is still in use in many lollypops, candies, drinks and cosmetics today.


Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks report published in 2010 highlights that red no. 40, yellow no. 5 and yellow no. 6 contain carcinogenic contaminants. In addition, color red no. 40, which is one of the most widely used colors, has been shown to “accelerate the appearance of immune-system tumors in mice” and color yellow no.6 “caused adrenal tumors in animals”. The report concludes that these, and some other, artificial colors should be banned as they add no nutritional benefits and pose significant health risks.

So how can we avoid consuming these harmful chemicals?

There is no easy way but here are a few ideas for you:

  • Read the ingredients list – If you want to avoid eating the artificial colors added to your foods you have to read the labels and understand the ingredient list of the products you buy. This is particularly important if you are buying candy, cakes, lollypops, ice cream and some yogurts as these foods are particularly loaded with color additives.
  • Avoid fast food restaurants and processed foods – It is also a good idea to avoid fast food restaurants or at least read their product ingredient information before you go as they often add artificial colors to their foods to make it look more appealing.
  • Switch to chocolate – If you or your children have a sweet tooth then consider switching to chocolate. Unlike candy and lollypops, chocolate does not contain artificial colour additives.
  • Find product alternatives – For example in our house we have replaced the famous Haribo gummi bears with Annie’s Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks. Instead of using artificial colors, Annie’s bunnies are colored with natural colors like turmeric, black carrot or annatto just to name a few.
  • Source from Europe – If you really love a particular brand of candy or lollypops and would rather not give them up, then try to source these from Europe. For example in the US Starburst is made of non-vegetarian gelatin and contains artificial colors and in the UK Starburst is made from vegetarian gelatin and contains natural colors.

It is also really important to continue to raise awareness of the health impacts that the artificial colors have on our health and to continue to sign petitions, lobby the government and big companies to stop using these harmful chemicals. If they have been able to adapt to the European markets with ease and already have the new formulas and lists of ingredients it should be straightforward  for them to launch the same products on the US market.

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