What’s So Bad About Food Colouring?

What’s So Bad About Food Colouring?

It would turn out that I am researching and writing this post at the precise moment that my daughter has a sky-rocketing fever and I’m pumping her so full of Advil and Tylenol that I’m convinced I’m having an effect on their stock values.  My husband came home with liquid Advil of a colour that can only be described as electric blue.  As I administered the toxic looking substance, I thought, This can’t be good. But she took it without complaint, thinking it was a treat.

In addition to making medicine more palatable for our kids, food colouring is used in an array of everyday products in order to make us think they taste better.  Things like Froot Loops, and deli meats that would otherwise be an unappetizing grey contain food colouring.  But did you know that food producers use colouring to make salmon more pink or orange skins more orange?

And the trouble goes deeper than false appearances.  Studies have shown synthetic food colouring to cause cancer, tumour growth and birth defects in animal studies.  More recently, there have been links between certain food colours and mixtures of colours to  hyperactivity and other behavioural problems in some children. Even with these concerns, synthetic food colourings are still very much in our food system.  And what’s more disturbing is that colouring is most pervasive in foods and food products that typically are for children.

The British government was sufficiently convinced of the negative impacts of food dyes and has urged food manufacturers to voluntarily stop using most food dyes by 2009.  The EU has mandated as of this past July to put warning labels on all foods containing synthetic dyes to read “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” As a result, many food producers have already voluntarily stopped using synthetic colouring.

So, what’s Canada doing? Currently we only require the term “colour” to be included on food labels.  In early 2010, Health Canada said they were going to move to improve that labeling so that the specific names of the colours be listed.  So what?  While using specific colour names is more specific, it falls short of actually telling us anything. How many Canadians know that Blue 2 caused a significant incidence of tumours, particularly brain gliomas in male rats? I would suggest most of us would apply little thought to the small print that reads sunset yellow colouring.  Who doesn’t like a sunset?  Perhaps if they called it ‘cancer causing crimson’ or ‘ADHD colour additive’ we would understand what it means when our label reads: red 40 or yellow 5.

Ali Chernoff, dietician and author of Good Food Baby (www.nutritionatitsbest.comwww.energyessentials24-7.com and www.goodfoodbaby.com) suggests that a ban on synthetic food colouring is the way to go.  Until then, we should avoid them wherever possible and instead use natural dyes such as beets, blueberry juice, paprika and beta carotene.

If you’re still wondering what all the fuss is about have a look at this list of approved food dyes and what the studies have shown.

Source: Food Dyes a Rainbow of Risks, from The Centre for Science in the Public Interest.

Blue 1 was not found to be toxic in key rat and mouse studies, but an unpublished study suggested the possibility that Blue 1 caused kidney tumours in mice, and a preliminary in vitro study raised questions about possible effects on nerve cells.  Blue 1 may not cause cancer, but confirmatory studies should be conducted.  The dye can cause hypersensitivity reactions.

Blue 2 cannot be considered safe given the statistically significant incidence of tumors, particularly brain gliomas, in male rats.  It should not be used in foods.

Citrus Red 2, which is permitted only for coloring the skins of oranges not used for processing, is toxic to rodents at modest levels and caused tumors of the urinary bladder and possibly other organs.  The dye poses minimal human risk, because it is only used at minuscule levels and only on orange peels, but it still has no place in the food supply.

Green 3 caused significant increases in bladder and testes tumors in male rats.

Though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers it safe, this little-used dye must remain suspect until further testing is conducted.

Orange B is approved for use only in sausage casings, but has not been used for many years.  Limited industry testing did not reveal any problems.

Red 3 was recognized in 1990 by the FDA as a thyroid carcinogen in animals and is banned in cosmetics and externally applied drugs.  All uses of Red 3 lakes (combinations of dyes and salts that are insoluble and used in low-moisture foods) are also banned.  However, the FDA still permits Red 3 in ingested drugs and foods, with about 200,000 pounds of the dye being used annually.  The FDA needs to revoke that approval.

Red 40, the most-widely used dye, may accelerate the appearance of immune-system tumors in mice.  The dye causes hypersensitivity (allergy-like) reactions in a small number of consumers and might trigger hyperactivity in children.  Considering the safety questions and its non-essentiality, Red 40 should be excluded from foods unless
and until new tests clearly demonstrate its safety.

Yellow 5 was not carcinogenic in rats, but was not adequately tested in mice.  It may be contaminated with several cancer-causing chemicals.  In addition, Yellow 5 causes sometimes-severe hypersensitivity reactions in a small number of people and might trigger hyperactivity and other behavioral effects in children.  Posing some risks, while serving no nutritional or safety purpose, Yellow 5 should not be allowed in foods.

Yellow 6 caused adrenal tumors in animals, though that is disputed by industry and the FDA.  It may be contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals and occasionally causes severe hypersensitivity reactions.  Yellow 6 adds an unnecessary risk to the food supply.

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  1. northTOmom
    January 17, 21:26 Reply

    I realize that this was posted in December (I just linked to it via a tweet), and that your daughter’s fever is long gone (one hopes!), but next time you send your husband out for children’s liquid anti-fever medicine, tell him to look for the dye-free versions of Motrin (ibuprofen) and Tylenol. They taste the same to kids, and though they are certainly not “natural” (artificial sweeteners are another issue in kids’ medicine), at least they do not contain the harmful food colourings that you discuss above.

    And thanks for the detailed info on the different colours. It reinforces my determination to keep junk food/candy away from my kids (not always possible, but one can try).

  2. Heidi Pyper
    January 18, 07:28 Reply

    Hi There!
    Thank you for reading and for the suggestion.Both the fever and the crazy blue advil are gone! We will forever more be using dye free meds.
    All the best,

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