When Should I Worry About...

Is Red Dye No. 3 in Food Bad for You? A Dietitian's Take

May 10, 2024 - Josh Davis

From juice to jelly beans and baby food to baking decorations, synthetic food dyes are ubiquitous. How enticing would some foods appear, after all, without the vivid colors provided by dyes?

But many dyes pose health risks.

Perhaps none has aroused such concern as red dye 3, which the FDA banned in cosmetics more than 30 years ago because research showed high doses could cause cancer in lab animals. Despite pressure from public interest groups, the agency has never extended the ban to the dye's use in food.

But the pressure only figures to increase. Several countries — including the European Union, United Kingdom Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom — have all banned red dye 3 in foods. In October 2023, California became the first U.S. state to ban its use in food, superseding the FDA's current rule that allows small amounts in foods as a color additive. A number of U.S. states have introduced legislation to follow suit.

It all begs the question: If we can't put red dye 3 on our skin, but it's still allowed in foods and ingestible medicine, what impact might it be having on our health?

"Fear is a very powerful motivator for attracting views and reads, so many influencers will pick out ingredients in products for shock and fear to draw us in," says Amanda Beaver, a wellness dietician at Houston Methodist. "Sometimes these are warranted, but many times they are not."

"Dyes do serve a fun function as they make foods and desserts look fun and tasty," adds Beaver. "However, there is convincing evidence for the removal of red dye 3 from our food supply based on our laws."

What is red dye 3 and why isn't it banned in foods?

Red dye 3, also known as erythrosine, is a synthetic dye made from petroleum that gives popular food and drinks a bright red cherry color. It was first approved more than a century ago in 1907 when little research had been conducted on the coloring agent. For context, this occurred decades before we knew that smoking causes cancer, back in the days when cigarettes were "physician-approved."

In response to several color additives causing "serious adverse effects," according to the FDA, the agency re-evaluated their approval process with the Color Additive Amendments of 1960, which listed red dye 3 along with 200 other color additives as provisionally approved, meaning they could still be used temporarily until scientific data established unconditionally that they were safe enough to consume or potentially harmful until to ban.

In 1969, red dye 3 was unconditionally approved for food and ingestible medication. But in 1990, the FDA banned its use in cosmetics based on lab animal research that invoked the Delaney Clause — a provision that requires the FDA to ban food additives found to cause or induce cancer in humans or animals as indicated by testing. However, despite the FDA's claim it would work to ban red dye 3 in food and drugs, it did not.

"Studies now show that red dye 3 is associated with hyperactivity in children and that high doses can cause thyroid cancer in male rats," says Beaver. "There have not been studies showing that it causes thyroid cancer in humans, but the FDA now lists red dye 3 as an animal carcinogen."

"Because the Delaney Clause states food additives must not cause cancer in humans or animals, many consumer advocacy groups say that red dye 3 should be banned," says Beaver.

(Related: Is Your Thyroid Trying to Tell You Something?)

What foods contain red dye 3?

The best way to know if a product contains red dye 3 is to read the nutrition label. Law requires the dye be listed there.

"Many people are aware that red dye 3 and other dyes are in candies which give them their bright flashy colors, but many people are not aware that it can also be found in savory foods," says Beaver. "You can be confident the food does not have one of these dyes by checking the ingredients label."

Food manufacturers are required by law to disclose the ingredients found in packaged foods. Red dye 3 will be listed as either red dye 3 (or FD&C Red Dye No. 3) or erythrosine.

According to Beaver, foods that may contain red dye 3 include:

  • Some fruit cocktails
  • Candy corns
  • Protein shakes, even popular brands
  • Ice pops
  • Sausages
  • Lollipops
  • Puddings
  • Vegetarian meats
  • Bacon bits
  • Strawberry milk
  • Jellybeans
  • Candies
  • Colored beverages
  • Strawberry ice cream bars

 

(Related: How Ultra-Processed Foods Harm Your Health)

What about other dyes?

Any food additive, including synthetic dyes, is required by the FDA to have pre-market approval before it can be added to foods. However, that hasn't stopped other current FDA-approved dyes from being subject to scrutiny — merited or not — from the public over health concerns. Those dyes include:

  • Red 40, or Allura Red
  • Blue 1, or Brilliant Blue
  • Blue 2, or Indigo Carmine
  • Yellow 5, or Tartrazine
  • Yellow 6, or Sunset Yellow
  • Green 3, or Fast Green

 

Two of those, red 40 and yellow 5, stand out as being linked to hyperactivity in children.

How might you limit your intake of red dye 3?

According to Beaver, if you're concerned about your intake of red dye 3, rather than focusing on avoiding certain ingredients, it's more sustainable to focus on your overall eating pattern.

"I don't recommend that my patients routinely check the ingredient list unless they have food allergies, food sensitivities or gastrointestinal issues," says Beaver. "Instead, I have them focus on adding nutritious foods to their diet or making healthier swaps that they enjoy."

"A nutritious diet will be low in dyes regardless. I don't think it is reasonable to avoid all dyes in foods as they are found in so many celebration foods."

With respect to red dye 3, here are some nutritious swaps that Beaver recommends:

  • Frozen fruit instead of fruit cocktail
  • Fruit-infused water instead of artificially colored drinks
  • Chocolate bars instead of colorful candy
  • Bean chili instead of veggie burgers
  • Roasted, salted pumpkin seeds instead of bacon bits
  • Chocolate milk instead of strawberry milk
  • Homemade trail mix with nuts, chocolate chips and raisins instead of store-bought ones with candy-coated chocolate

 

In addition to California banning red dye 3, many household food brands have moved away or are moving away from the use of such synthetic dyes. The trend is toward naturally derived colors, such as:

  • Annatto extract (yellow)
  • Beetroot powder (bluish red to brown)
  • Caramel (yellow to tan)
  • Beta-carotene from carrots (yellow to orange)
  • Grape skin extract and purple carrot juice (red or purple)

 

"People can make the personal choice to include these in their diet once in a while," says Beaver. "By eating a diet with a foundation rooted in veggies, fruits, proteins, nuts, legumes and grains, people don't have to worry so much about having a colorful candy once in a while."

"The good thing is that brands may start removing this dye from their products due to the ban in California."

(Related: 5 Nutrition Misconceptions Debunked by a Dietitian)

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Categories: When Should I Worry About...