Is Food Coloring Safe?

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
August 04, 2016

While the federal government says food coloring is fine, consumer safety advocates believe some dyes may cause ADHD. Is food coloring safe? Here's what you should know.

While the federal government insists that food coloring has been reviewed and is safe, consumer advocacy organizations and some scientists continue to insist it isn’t. 

What you believe is a personal choice. 


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Is food coloring safe?

"Color additives are very safe when used properly," says Linda Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Office of Cosmetics and Colors in the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "There is no such thing as absolute safety of any substance. In the case of a new color additive, (the FDA) determines if there is 'a reasonable certainty of no harm’ under the color additive's proposed conditions of use."

“Extensive research confirms” food dyes are safe, says Joseph Borzelleca, PhD, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

He added that each of the nine man-made dyes used in food went through 5 to 10 years of laboratory and animal testing before receiving FDA approval. “There has never been a confirmed health issue related to food coloring in the United States, except for rare cases of allergic reactions,” he says. 

Does food coloring cause ADHD?

On the other side of the aisle, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) claims the FDA “is failing to protect children from the disturbing behavioral problems caused by artificial food dyes, even though evidence of those problems has continued to mount since 2011, when an FDA advisory panel last considered the issue.”

In 2008, CSPI petitioned the FDA to ban the use of certain dyes, claiming there is a link with hyperactivity and related behavioral problems in children, specifically listing Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Red 40. Some also “pose a risk of cancer” (like Red 3) and allergic reactions, CSPI claims. CSPI added that the British government and the European Union have taken actions that are virtually ending the use of most food dyes throughout Europe.

Food industry use of natural food coloring

An article in Scientific American noted that Kraft removed food dyes from its iconic macaroni and cheese as of January 2016 and replicated the yellow color with natural food coloring ingredients, such as paprika, turmeric, and annatto, a substance derived from achiote tree seeds. 

“The company said it decided to pull the dyes in response to growing consumer pressure for more natural foods,” author Rebecca Harrington wrote. “But claims that the dyes may be linked to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children have also risen recently, as they did years ago, putting food dyes under sharp focus once again. On its website Kraft says synthetic colors are not harmful, and that their motivation to remove them is because consumers want more foods with no artificial colors.”

There's no consensus

It should be noted that although initial studies in the 1970s “suggested” a link between artificial colors and hyperactive behavior, even today “scientists, consumers, and the government have not yet reached a consensus on the extent of this risk or the correct path to address it.”

An FDA committee in 2011 reviewed the existing research and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove that foods with artificial colors caused hyperactivity in the general population. “The FDA also decided that further research was needed, and that a label disclosing a possible link between dyes and hyperactivity was unnecessary,” Scientific American said. 

A scientist who has studied the issues for decades is “frustrated” by the FDA’s approach. 

"All the evidence we have has showed that it has some capacity to harm," says Bernard Weiss, professor emeritus of the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "In Europe that's enough to get it banned because a manufacturer has to show lack of toxic effects. In this country it's up to the government to find out whether or not there are harmful effects." 


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March 30, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN