There have been a handful of food industry transitions over the last few years, leading to all-but-boycotts on ingredients that we once accepted without question. Among these are gluten, high fructose corn syrup, and, of course, food dyes.
But what’s so wrong with these pretty, colorful additives? Can they really have an impact on your health, and should you actively try to avoid them?
Let’s take a look at what food dyes are, the impacts they can have on your health, and what you can do to mitigate your exposure.
What Dyes Are
Thanks to good, old-fashioned evolution, humans have come to expect certain qualities from their food. One of these, which plays a surprisingly strong role in our enjoyment of such foods, is its color.
We know that blueberries are blue; therefore, when we eat something blueberry flavored, we expect it to be blue. The same goes for orange, strawberry, and the list goes on. While there are foods and drinks without color (natural or added), we seem to not get the same pleasure — or at least, flavor recognition — as if it had the color we’ve come to expect.
Enter food dyes.
Food dyes are chemical compounds that are produced in a factory from petroleum/crude oil. (Yes, the same stuff put in our car engines, refined into gasoline, and even used to make asphalt.) They come in every color of the rainbow, and can be formulated as liquids, gels, or even powders. Their sole purpose is to make your food look “pretty,” and they have neither a nutritional value nor any flavor.
Food dyes are seemingly everywhere, in almost every product that we consume. In fact, Americans consume more than 15 million pounds of food dyes each year!
They are named telling things like FD&C Red No. 40 or FD&C Blue No. 1. They might also be listed under innocuous-sounding names like Tartrazine, which is really just FD&C Yellow No. 5 in disguise, or even simply “artificial color.”
You can find food dyes in the expected places, like frosting on a birthday cake or in your childhood packet of Kool-Aid. But you might be surprised to learn all of the seemingly-unnecessary places that these petroleum-based chemicals turn up. Here are a few examples:
- Balsamic vinegar: “caramel color” is often added to give lower-quality vinegar its deep brown appearance.
- Pickles: that jar of crunchy dills might have more than cucumbers and spices — blue and yellow food dyes are often used to enhance the look.
- Yogurt: think your creamy breakfast is only a certain color because of the fruit it contains? You might be wrong. Many brands throw in reds to enhance the fruit color, or blue dye to enhance the white.
- Salad dressing: whether you buy ranch, italian, or french dressing, you are at risk of consuming food dyes. Red, yellow, and even blue dyes regularly make an appearance on the salad dressing shelves.
- Protein snack bars: it may look like fruit and granola, but you’d be wrong. Some granola and protein bars on the shelves today uses reds, yellows, and blues to enhance their bars.
- Marshmallows: they may look white to the naked eye, but it’s actually blue food dye that’s often added which gives these pillowy treats their snow-white appearance (the same trick is used for many “whitening” detergents and cleaners!).
- Toothpaste: you may not be consuming large amounts of it, but there are plenty of red and blue food dyes that typically color toothpastes today.
I’ll be honest: it’s easy to see why food dyes are popular. A few years back, I tried a volcanic rock water, which was black in color. It tasted exactly like normal, filtered water, but I simply couldn’t get past the color. It wasn’t what my brain expected and therefore, I couldn’t find pleasure in drinking it. The same goes for the clear sodas that have been introduced to (and subsequently pulled from) the market here in the U.S.: humans have subconscious expectations of their food’s appearance, and that’s difficult to rewire.
Why Food Dyes Are Dangerous
I grew up as a child of the 80s, raised on lollipop rings and dip-n-lick powders of unknown composition. While I’ve (thus far) turned out alright, I am shocked to realize all of the things that we have consumed without question over the years. Things that are actually pretty harmful.
Like food dyes.
Food dyes are dangerous for a number of reasons. First and foremost, as we already talked about, they are a petroleum product, produced by crude oil. No matter how it’s processed, refined, or “cleaned up,” there is nothing redeeming about putting a petroleum product in your body.
It’s not just a matter of preference, either, like cutting out sugar or reducing your gluten intake: food dyes are dangerous. In fact, they can kill you.
A number of common food dyes today are actually listed as known carcinogens. Colors like Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 have been found to be contaminated by benzidine, likely due to the petroleum-refining process required to create them. Benzidine is a known carcinogen, which means that it has been found to cause cancer in lab animals and humans.
If you want to really worry, though, do some research on Red 3: this food dye isn’t just known to be contaminated by carcinogens. It IS a carcinogen, all on its own.
For some, the idea of food additives — which, remember, serve no purpose except to make your food pretty to the eye — causing cancer and quite literally killing you seems like too much to grasp. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other side effects from their consumption.
Many food dyes, especially of the red variety, have been shown to cause ADHD/ADD behavior in children. Scientists aren’t yet sure of the exact mechanism at work, but consumption of these additives has the ability to hinder children’s development, concentration, and behavior. And remember: they’re in almost everything processed! (No wonder we have an ADD/ADHD epidemic in this country.)
How to Avoid Food Dyes
If the idea of consuming cancer-causing food dyes worries you, you’re not alone. More people than ever are ditching artificial colors and opting instead for healthier, more natural alternatives. It just takes a concerted effort.
The idea of, say, never having pink cupcakes for your daughter’s birthday again can be disheartening. Luckily, there are so many ways to still get eye-pleasing colors in your food without the health impacts of crude oil-based colorants.
You can opt for fruit and vegetable additives, such as mixing strawberries into frosting or blueberries into a cake. The colors are a bit more muted than when they come from a concentrated bottle, but the health impacts are worth it. You can also buy powdered and liquid food dyes that are derived from things like carrots (orange), beets (red), spirulina (green), and turmeric (yellow), to name a few.
Your best bet for avoiding food dyes is to avoid processed foods as much as you can. Try to eat homemade as much as possible, avoid canned drinks (if you must have a bubbly “soda,” try something like Spindrift), or find safe alternatives from companies as committed to this change as you.
For instance: until this summer, my children had never tried a Bomb Pop. You know, the tangy red, white, and blue popsicle that was a summertime staple in our own childhoods? Yeah, my kids had no idea what that tasted like. It seemed like a veritable you-know-what storm of food dyes and processed sugar, and I avoided it at all costs.
Then I came across the brand GoodPop. I first tried their freezer pops (clear, plastic tubes reminiscent of the colorful popsicles in my youth), which were made from 100% fruit juice. My kids loved them, so when I saw their own version of a Bomb Pop, I had to give it a try. Not only do they taste amazing, but we avoid carcinogens, high fructose corn syrup, and preservatives in the process.
When I need a “soda,” I grab one of those Spindrifts that I mentioned before. My kids get fresh juice from my Omega juicer, instead of bottled/packaged stuff. I only use Warrior Fuel supplements because they don’t put unnecessary dyes in their preworkouts or BCAAs. And I try to only shop around the perimeter of the store (fresh produce, etc.) instead of from the shelves.
You may not be able (or even want) to eliminate all sugars, preservatives, and additives from your and your kids’ food. Avoiding carcinogenic food dyes, though, is a no-brainer.
It doesn’t mean avoiding all of your loved foods, either! By simply making smart choices — and swapping your favorites out for healthier alternatives — you can keep your family safe without feeling like you’re missing out at all.