- The FDA has banned the use of red dye No. 3 in cosmetics and topical drugs since the 1990s, but synthetic food dyes are still allowed in food products.
- Research shows that food colorings have been linked to ADHD symptoms in children.
- The European Union requires products containing red dye No. 40 and five other synthetic dyes to have a health warning label.
If you’re looking for a last-minute way to share your feelings with your crush this Valentine’s Day, a flirty text or a dozen roses might be better than grabbing whatever red, heart-shaped candy is available in the checkout aisle.
Red dye No. 3 (erythrosine), a synthetic food coloring known to cause cancer in research animals, is found in thousands of products, from candy hearts to ring pops. But this additive goes well beyond Valentine’s treats to surprising pantry staples like rice and mashed potatoes.
Concerns about red dye No. 3 are not new. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned it from cosmetics and topical drugs in 1990,1 but it’s still approved for use in food and supplements.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest and a number of other organizations submitted a petition to the FDA in October 2022 to remove red dye No 3. from its list of approved additives for food and supplements. The FDA is currently reviewing the petition, according to a spokesperson from the agency.
Synthetic Dyes Linked to ADHD Symptoms in Children
Red No. 3 is not the only synthetic food dye health experts worry about. Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, told Verywell that synthetic food dyes have been identified as a known animal carcinogen and they’re linked to “adverse neurobehavioral symptoms.”
According to a 2021 report in California, certain food dyes like red No. 3 and red No. 40 may contribute to hyperactivity in some children, Ronholm said.
The International Association of Color Manufacturers, which represents the color additives industry, responded at the time, saying that “no study has offered compelling evidence that these colors cause adverse behaviors.”
But since 2010, the European Union has required products containing red dye No. 40 and five other synthetic dyes to come with a warning that these “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”2
Similar health warnings are not listed on U.S. products, but synthetic dyes are required to be named on ingredient lists. Galligan said the only way for U.S. consumers to avoid harmful food coloring nowadays is to check product labels. “That’s an unreasonable burden in our opinion,” he said.
Experts Say Consuming Red Dyes Are Not Worth the Risk
Arguments over the use of synthetic dyes in foods are ongoing. Although studies haven’t shown that red dye No. 3 directly causes cancer in humans, it might not be worth the risk. “The baseline assumption is that if something causes cancer in an animal, it will cause cancer in humans,” he said.
Additives known to cause cancer in humans or animals are technically not allowed to be used in food products according to the decades-old Delaney Clause, a provision in the Color Additive Amendments of 1960 that states that the FDA should consider these additives “unsafe.”3 The recent red 3 petition uses this as one of the main arguments for banning the dye.
“It’s absurd that it’s taken FDA so long to act on Red 3 in particular,” Galligan said.
While the petition signers wait for a response, Galligan said the public could also reach out to their local lawmakers and ask them to prioritize food chemical issues.
“The way it’s regulated at a federal level is just kind of broken. We need wholesale reform and that doesn’t happen without a very energetic and vocal base of constituents who are asking for change,” Galligan said.
What This Means For You
Synthetic food dyes, including red dyes 3 and 40, don’t offer any nutritional value—they’re only added to make foods look more appealing. Some products are now made with natural food dyes, like beet juice. Information about these additives can usually be found on the ingredients list.
- Center for Science in the Public Interest. Food dyes: a rainbow of risks.
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