What do pickles, BBQ sauce and Hawaiian Punch have in common? Yes, they all belong at a summer BBQ, but there is something else. These common foods frequently contain an ingredient called Red 40, also known as Allura Red. This ingredient can be found in almost anything ranging from dairy products, to baked goods, to popular candies and fruity beverages. In fact, it’s one of the most common food additives in the US, and has been a topic of controversy in the food world for over 30 years.
What is Red 40 Anyway?
Red 40 is a chemical compound that comes from coal tars. Additives such as dyes made from coal tars are created by mixing various fragrant smelling hydrocarbons like benzyne and toluene. Back in the day (think: ancient Egyptians) natural food coloring was made from things found in nature, like flowers, leaves, roots, etc. Over time however, scientists have learned how to create these color additives in the lab - this is where colorants like Red 40 made their debut.
What Are The Side Effects?
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, some people who have come in contact with foods with red dye have had symptoms of allergic reactions, such as swelling around the mouth. Research has also shown a link between Red 40 and hyperactive behavior in children, even potentially being a factor in children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder). Most studies of Red 40 side effects have been done on mice, and Red 40 did quite a number on the little guys. It caused adverse reactions in the rats, as they had lower reproductive success, a reduced weight of both parents and their offspring, decreased brain weight, and a lower chance of survival for newborn rats.
Concerns about what's in Red 40 and its health risks are not new, as studies have been focused on the harmful dangers of the dyes for over 30 years. Today, there are only seven synthetic food dyes left on the FDA’s approved list, and Red 40 is one of them. Almost every 10 years, a new dye is taken off of the list because of its negative side effects. Orange #1 was removed from the approved list in the 50’s, in the 70’s Red #2 was shown to cause cancerous tumors in rats, and just recently Yellow #5 has been investigated for causing migraines, anxiety, and even cancer. Will Red 40 be the next food dye removed from the list?
The Southampton Six
There are conflicting studies about the health risks of Red 40. Groups like The Center for Science in the Public Interest have been pushing the FDA to remove what they call the “Southampton Six” from the FDA’s approved list of safe ingredients. The Southampton Six include Red dye 40, Ponceau 4R (E124), Tartrazine (Yellow 5) (E102), Sunset Yellow FCF/Orange Yellow S (Yellow6) (E110), Quinoline Yellow (E104), and Carmoisine (E102).
Coca-Cola and General Mills are members of the Grocer’s Manufacturing Association; a group that, not surprisingly, doesn’t seem to think food colorants or additives are a huge health problem and questions the validity of the studies. According to Forbes.com, “the FDA does not reject the proposition that the remaining approved artificial food dyes may carry adverse health effects, its representatives generally agree, stating that further evidence is needed before another ban is enacted.”
The FDA mandates that food with Red 40 must be labeled appropriately, but the labels do not have to disclose how much Red 40 is in each specific food products. A common misconception is that as long as you avoid consuming red and orange colored foods, you should be in the clear when it comes to avoiding Red 40. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Red 40 can be found in pickles, some salad dressings and various cheeses.
How To Avoid Red 40
The best chance in avoiding what's in Red 40 is to avoid avoiding foods that contain red 40 as well as any drinks that include artificial coloring (even sports drinks like gatorade!). Reading food labels is always a smart and proactive way to control your diet to make sure you know exactly what is going into your body, and the bodies of your family members. Red 40 can also be referred to as:
- Red 40
- Red No. 40
- FD & C Red No. 40
- FD and C Red No. 40
- Allura Red
- Allura Red AC
- C. I. 16035
- C.I. Food Red 17
There are other easy ways to avoid consuming Red 40 in your diet. You can eat fresh, unprocessed food that doesn’t come in a box or bag! Or If something has to be colored, be sure to look for natural colors that come from ingredients like beets, turmeric, and purple sweet potatoes.
Remember not to limit your label reading to just food. Many cosmetics, types of mouthwashes and other beauty products contain synthetic dyes as well.
The Bottom Line: To Red 40 or Not?
The Food and Drug Administration stands firm that although food dyes may not be the best ingredient on the planet, they believe there’s nothing concrete enough to prove that what's in Red 40 is inherently harmful to the general population. However, the research presented by the CSPI is worrisome. Ultimately, it’s up to you, the consumer, to decide.
Do you avoid artificial coloring or dyes when shopping? Share with us why or why not in the comments below!