Can food dyes cause stomachaches? Despite concerns that color additives may pose any number of significant health risks, there's little indication that stomach trouble is among them. When it comes to the safety of food dyes, the proof is in the pudding (even if that pudding is dyed bright yellow).
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What Are Food Dyes?
"Food dyes are usually added to foods, beverages and cosmetics for appearance purposes," says New York City-based Ashley Baumohl, RD, CDN, an assistant clinical nutrition manager at Lenox Hill Hospital. "They can enhance coloring and make products more appealing to the human eye." Think mac 'n' cheese, sports drinks, breakfast cereals and breads, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved (or "certified") nine synthetic food dye colors for use in food, alongside naturally sourced colorings derived from vegetables, minerals or animals. The FDA says that all are safe for consumption when used in approved amounts for specific foods.
But can food dyes cause stomachaches? Baumohl says there's no evidence that they do, though she suggests — and then dismisses — two theoretical concerns to consider: food allergies and food intolerance.
Is There Such a Thing as a Food Dye Intolerance or Allergy?
"A food allergy," Baumohl says, "involves an immune response where the body is essentially trying to defend itself from invaders." And food allergies can cause cramping, stomach pain and/or diarrhea, per the Cleveland Clinic.
On the other hand, food intolerance "usually takes place in the digestive system," Baumohl says, "when your body doesn't have the proper tools to break down the nutrients, therefore causing stomach upset." That, the Cleveland Clinic says, can mean stomach pain, gas, cramps, bloating, diarrhea and/or nausea.
But Baumohl says there's no solid proof that either issue plays any notable stomach-churning role.
"There is just not enough research to indicate improper digestion of food dyes, and while it is possible to have an allergy to food dyes, reactions are relatively rare," she says. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) also cites a lack of research on the subject.
Allergy symptoms are also usually mild and typically involve skin trouble in the form of hives or swelling, Baumohl says, rather than stomachaches or diarrhea.
There is, however, one additive that offers somewhat of a twist: sulfites. Technically, sulfites are not food dyes. But as both the AAAAI and the Cleveland Clinic note, they're added to many fruits, vegetables, wines and beers as a way to preserve color and prevent browning.
Some people may have an "allergic-like" reaction to sulfites resulting in gastrointestinal problems, including stomach pain and cramping, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, according to Food Allergy Canada.
Food Dyes and Other Concerns
Stomachaches aside, can food coloring make you sick in other ways? Perhaps.
Take carmine, a natural red dye formulated from the crushed remains of the cochineal insect, according to the American Chemical Society. Carmine may raise the risk for hives, skin swelling, asthma, dermatitis and a potentially serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, per a 2019 review in Acta Biomedica.
Two yellow dyes — annatto and tartrazine (yellow dye 5) — have also been linked to trouble, the Acta Biomedica study notes: annatto to hives and swelling in children and anaphylaxis in adults; tartrazine to pediatric hives, atopic dermatitis, irritability, restlessness and insomnia.
Some studies have suggested food dyes might trigger pediatric attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but the FDA has determined that to date, no studies have proven this link and more research is needed.
Read more: Is the Food Dye Red 40 Dangerous to Your Health?
- Ashley Baumohl, MPH, RD, CDN, CNSC, assistant clinical nutrition manager, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York, New York
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: “Color Additives Questions and Answers for Consumers”
- Acta Biomedica: “Hypersensitivity Reactions to Food and Drug Additives: Problem or Myth?”
- Cleveland Clinic: "Food Problems: Is It an Allergy or Intolerance"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Is Food Coloring Safe for Kids?"
- American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: "Allergic to the Fine Print: Food Allergy to Additives, Rare But Real"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Sulfite Sensitivity"
- Food Allergy Canada: "Sulphites"
- American Chemical Society: "Eating With Your Eyes: The Chemistry of Food Colorings"
- World Health Organization: “Evaluation of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)”
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "CFR - CODE of Federal Regulations Title 21"