Maybe you've heard some bad things about artificial food colorings, specifically red dye 40, formally known as Red Allure AC. Does red 40 have side effects you should be aware of, and could it be harmful for children? Experts are divided on the issue, and the advice out there is mixed.
The Food and Drug Administration deems red dye 40 to be safe and regulates its use in food; however, other organizations, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, believe it to be carcinogenic.
What Is Red Dye 40?
As a color additive, red dye 40 is used by manufacturers to give products — whether food, drugs or cosmetics — a certain appearance, according to the Food and Drug Administration. When it comes to food, color additives can either enhance the food's natural color, give color to a food that doesn't have color, or help give a flavored food a certain identity.
For example, think of the last time you ate something that was strawberry flavored, such as candy or yogurt. It might not have had any real strawberry in it (or not enough to give it an enticing red color), so the manufacturer used red dye 40 to turn it pinkish red and make you associate it with strawberries.
Read more: Which Foods Contain Red Dye?
The FDA lists red dye 40 as being used in such food products as cereal, beverages, gelatins, puddings, dairy products and confections. It is classified as a synthetic or artificial coloring rather than a natural coloring, which derives from plants, animals or minerals. Food manufacturers that need to achieve the color red with natural colorings might instead turn to dehydrated beets, which can give food a bluish-red or brown color, or even grapes, which can give a red color as well as a green color.
For those concerned about whether red 40 is vegan, take note that the Vegetarian Resource Group lists artificial colors as "typically synthetic," and although they could possibly be derived from an insect source, most likely artificial colorings like red 40 are vegan. Therefore, red 40 could be included in a vegan diet.
Does Red 40 Have Side Effects?
Per the FDA, artificial colors like red dye 40 are safe when used in accordance with regulations. The FDA has standards for what types of food they can be used in, the maximum amount that can be used and how the additive is listed on the label.
Red dye 40 is one of nine certified color additives approved by the FDA, which must undergo certification every time a new batch is made. With regard to red 40 side effects and safety, the FDA states that science shows most children do not have an adverse reaction to color additives, although some children may be particularly sensitive to them.
Other sources disagree. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which identifies red dye 40 as one of the more common artificial food colorings, explains that red 40 could provoke allergy-like reactions in some consumers and links behavioral problems such as ADHD in children among red 40 side effects.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been pushing the FDA since 2008 to ban food dye in commercially prepared food.
Per Harvard Health's 2011 commentary, children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder might be vulnerable to red 40 side effects, although most children won't have any problem consuming artificial food coloring; however, Harvard Health notes that there is nothing wrong with focusing a diet on whole, unprocessed foods and avoiding the junk food that's typically artificially colored: candy, sugary cereals, fruit drinks and soda.
From the perspective of those at St. Louis Children's Hospital, nobody needs to have artificial colors in their diet, and artificial colors are often used in food with added sugar, which does have an association with hyperactivity in children.
Finally, it is important to note that a July-September 2012 study published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health concludes that artificial colorings do raise health concerns including carcinogenicity. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services refers to p-Cresidine, an ingredient in red 40, as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" based off sufficient evidence from experimental animal studies.
In short, there's a lot of controversy, and it's up to the consumer to make an informed choice. As in most cases, the safest option might be to focus on unprocessed foods and consume candy and other products with artificial ingredients in moderation.
- FDA: “Color Additives Questions and Answers for Consumers”
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: "Seeing Red"
- Harvard Health Publishing: “FDA Panel Finds No Link Between Artificial Food Colorings and Hyperactivity in Most Children”
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Report on Carcinogens”
- Vegetarian Resource Group: “Vegetarian Journal’s Guide to Food Ingredients”
- International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health: “Toxicology of Food Dyes”
- St. Louis Children’s Hospital: “Does Red Food Dye Cause ADHD or Hyperactivity?”