Food Colors

The U.S. began regulating food colors in 1906, because many used at that time were frankly poisonous! Many contained arsenic, lead, or mercury. After testing, a handful of colors were approved for use. This was the beginning of today’s system.

Two kinds of food colors: Certified and Exempt

Today the FDA specifies two kinds of food coloring. One kind is “certified colors,” and the other “exempt color additives.” The Pew Charitable Trusts Food Additive Project reports 148 allowed color additives, both certified and exempt.

Most of the exempt color additives are from natural sources, but on labels, both certified and exempt colors must be called “artificial colors” or “artificial coloring.” To the FDA, any added color is an artificial method of changing the color of the food.

There is no term “natural colors” on U.S. labels.

Certified colors

The certified colors are in the familiar form “FD&C” with a number. “FD&C” stands for the “Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics” that the color will be added to. There are also D&C colors, used only in drugs and cosmetics.

All are synthetic and derived from petroleum.

The certified colors in the U.S. are a short list:

FD&C Blue No. 1
FD&C Blue No. 2
FD&C Green No. 3
Orange B (used to dye the outside of oranges)
Citrus Red No. 2 (approved to dye sausage casings)
FD&C Red No. 3
FD&C Red No. 40
FD&C Yellow No. 5
FD&C Yellow No. 6

A color derived from petroleum is used to dye the oranges that you see in the produce aisle!

These colors are called “certified” because the FDA tests each batch to determine the amounts of arsenic, lead, mercury, and a carcinogen called benzidine. If the amounts found are less than the allowed amounts, the FDA then issues a certificate for each batch. The certified colors are required to be listed on the label by name. (Unless you buy a Florida orange.)

Exempt colors

The exempt color additives are all the other food colors. They are required to be listed on the label either by name or as “artificial color” or “color added.” Many or most are from natural sources, but others are synthesized.

Some examples of exempt color additives are annato, beet powder, beta carotene, caramel color, and turmeric.

How bad are colors?

Certified colors are arguably toxic.

Some highlights of the scientific research include:

  • Thyroid tumors in rats from FD&C Red No. 3
  • Asthmatic reactions to FD&C Yellow No. 5
  • Southampton University (2007) research on children so compelling that the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency mandated a warning label (“May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”) on products containing any of six artificial colors. Three of these colors are commonly used in the United States: Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6, and Red No. 40.

The Feingold Association has collected and summarized scientific journal articles about synthetic colors as tested on animals, in laboratory experiments on nerve cells or blood cells, and observational studies on humans. Taken together, the studies are rather alarming.

The Association summarizes them this way: “In summary, certified food dyes can: make you hyperactive, give you cancer, damage your sperm, damage your liver, lower your immunity, raise your cholesterol, decrease your brain size, trigger an asthma attack, give you hives, make you cranky, damage your nerves.”

The Feingold Association is a non-profit that supports members using the Feingold Program.

The Feingold Program

The Feingold Program was developed at Kaiser-Permanente in San Francisco during the 1970s, initially for treating allergies and later for treating childhood behavioral problems.

It is a diet that removes synthetic food coloring, specified as petrochemical dyes; artificial flavors and fragrances; three preservatives (BHA, BHT, and TBHQ); artificial sweeteners; and foods naturally containing salicylates (natural chemicals related to aspirin).

It’s most famously used to address hyperactivity in children, but the Association suggests it for other health problems as well.

Neurological effects of certified colors

You may be interested to read Dr. Ben Feingold’s 1982 article, “The Role of Diet in Behavior” about children’s behavior. It discusses hyperactivity but also more subtle learning disabilities and contrariness. It seems pretty clear to me that food additives have neurological effects, even to the extent of neurological damage. It is a very enlightening article.

The Role of Diet in Behavior

The Feingold Association reviewed the studies on the effect of food colors on children’s behavior and apparent brain function and has posted a graph to help interpret the studies. They note that the studies, which seem to come to contrary conclusions, are not all equal. The studies used different amounts of the food colors.

Challenge Studies with food colors

In the graph, you can see that in the studies that used 5 mg. of food coloring, zero children react. In the studies using above 100 mg. of food coloring, 80-90% of children react.

How much food coloring is that? The Association notes that one cup of black cherry Jello has 83 mg. of food coloring; one cupcake with red frosting has 58 mg. of food coloring.

So in a study that tested children with the equivalent of two cupcakes and separated the effects from sugar—nearly every child went hyperactive.

They report that no study has used more than 150 mg. food coloring at a time, even though this amount is much lower than children’s’ actual exposure and much lower than the amount that the FDA considers to be an acceptable daily intake.

Food manufacturers start to replace certified colors

In 2015 and 2016, some large food manufacturers and chain restaurants have announced plans to remove “artificial colors”–they mean “certified colors”–from their products.

In many cases, the European versions of their products had already been formulated without certified colors.

We can expect new American versions of: Mars M&Ms, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and General Mills Trix –none of which needed certified colors after all.



Food Colors References

Center for Science in the Public Interest: Food Dyes

Seeing Red: Time for Action on Food Dyes (PDF)
Lisa Y. Lefferts
Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2016

Challenge Studies on Diet and ADHD
The Feingold Association of the United States

Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks (PDF)
Sarah Kobylewski and Michael F. Jacobson
Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2010

Diet, ADHD & Behavior: A Quarter-Century Review (PDF)
Michael F. Jacobson and David Schardt
Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1999

Coloring Foods & Beverages (PDF)
James C. Griffiths
Food Technology May 2005 59(5):38-43

A New Color (PDF)
Karen Nachay
Food Technology April 2009

Palette of Our Palettes: A Brief History of Food Coloring and Its Regulation
Adam Burrows
Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety Oct. 2009 8(4):394-408

Feingold Program References

The Feingold Association of the United States

The Feingold Bluebook: Behavior, Learning, and Health: The Dietary Connection (PDF)
Shula Edelkind, ed.
The Feingold Association of the United States, 2012

The Role of Diet in Behavior (PDF)
Ben F. Feingold
Ecology of Disease, Vol.1: Nos. 2/3 pp. 153-165. 1982