Is the Food Dye Red 40 Dangerous to Your Health?

While the FDA asserts that Red 40 is safe to eat, other organizations such as the CSPI disagree.
Image Credit: bhofack2/iStock/GettyImages

While some people are skeptical of food dyes, specifically Red No. 40, formally known as Allura Red AC, the FDA deems the additive to be safe and regulates its use in food.

Still, other organizations, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) consider Red Dye 40 potentially harmful (particularly to children). One thing experts can agree on is that Red Dye 40 has been highly controversial throughout the years.

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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 — including food, drugs and cosmetics — a certain appearance, according to the FDA. 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 No. 40 to turn it pinkish red to help you associate it with strawberries.

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Red Dye, like most artificial dyes, is derived from petroleum, per the CSPI.

Foods With Red Dye 40

Red Dye 40 can be found in a multitude of foods It is classified as a synthetic or artificial coloring rather than a natural coloring, which are derived from plants, animals or minerals.

The following foods are some of the more common sources of Red Dye 40, according to the FDA:

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  • Cereal
  • Beverages
  • Gelatins
  • Puddings
  • Dairy products
  • Sweets and baked goods

Red Dye 40 is eaten most often by children and, as such, it shows up in a lot of children's foods (think flavored milks and yogurts, colorful desserts and snacks and saccharine drinks).

Children ages two to five ate the most Red Dye 40 per day, according to a June 2017 study in ​Food Additives & Contaminants.​ Two- to five-year-olds had an average daily intake of Red Dye 40 at 0.0045 milligrams per pound (0.01 milligrams per kilogram) of body weight, while adults had the lowest at 0.0014 milligrams per pound (0.003 milligrams per kilogram) of body weight.

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Red 40 is generally considered vegan, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group, which lists artificial colors as "typically synthetic."

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How to Identify Red Dye 40 in Foods

You can start by reading food labels: The FDA requires Red Dye 40 to be listed on the ingredients list of food products that use the coloring. The ingredient may be listed under one of the following names:

  • Red 40
  • Red 40 Lake
  • FD&C Red No. 40
  • FD&C Red No. 40 Aluminum Lake
  • Allura Red AC
  • CI Food Red 17
  • INS No. 129
  • E129

2 Potential Dangers of Red Dye 40

The CSPI, one of the largest opponents of the synthetic red dye, has been working to pressure the FDA to ban food dye in commercially prepared food since 2008, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The group has several concerns:

1. Allergies and Red Dye 40

It's possible that Red Dye 40 is an allergen for some groups of people, though it's often very difficult to identify the cause of an allergic reaction in these cases, according to a September 2017 review in ​Food Chemistry​.

It is especially difficult to associate an allergy with Red Dye 40 specifically because the additive is often used in concert with many others. Still, "the dye causes hypersensitivity (allergy-like) reactions in a small number of consumers," according to a CSPI report.

2. ADHD and Red Dye 40

The FDA acknowledges that while most children don't experience adverse behavioral effects when consuming foods that contain Red Dye 40, there's some evidence that suggests some children may be sensitive to the ingredient.

Indeed, an estimated 8 percent of children living with Attention Deficit-Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) in the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada may have behavioral symptoms tied to synthetic food colors, per a January 2012 review of 34 studies published in the ​Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Research suggests that artificial dyes like Red Dye 40 may cause these types of behavioral conditions in children, which include excess inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity, because they can cause chemical changes in the brain, according to a May 2013 review in ​Nutrition Review.

Several studies on children with ADHD, like the January 2012 review in the ​Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,​ found that when synthetic food dyes were restricted from their diets, these children showed significant improvements in their symptoms.

Still, the science isn't so clear-cut as these improvements were found mainly in children with general food sensitivities or intolerances, according to an April 2011 study in Clinical Pediatrics.

Is Red 40 Safe?

The answer to this question really depends on who you ask. The FDA considers the artificial dye safe in the amounts it regulates, though it does acknowledge that some children may be sensitive to the ingredient and experience side effects.

On the other hand, the CSPI suggests that Red 40 can lead to adverse reactions and trigger ADHD symptoms in children.

For now, at least, it seems that it's up to the consumer to decide whether Red 40 is safe. While the official jury is still out (depending on who you consider the official jury), manufacturers have made changes to address concerns around synthetic food coloring.

In 2015, for example, General Mills announced its commitment to remove all artificial colorings from its cereals. The company said it would transition to using fruit and vegetable juice as well as spice extracts to color its cereals. Similarly, Kraft also nixed artificial dyes from its iconic yellow macaroni and cheese mixture in 2015, CBS News reported.

It's worth noting, perhaps, that these brands made these changes only after a study found that many name brand foods, including those owned by General Mills and Kraft, contained dyes in amounts higher than the levels demonstrated in some clinical trials to impair some children's behavior, according to the CSPI.

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