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What Are Food Colorings?

In the US, color additives are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. As the agency states, color additives "are dyes, pigments, or other substances that can impart color when added or applied to a food, drug, cosmetic, or the human body. They can be found in a range of consumer products—from cough syrup and eyeliner to contact lenses and cereal."

Color additives fall into two categories: synthetic, typically petroleum- or coal-derived additives that are subject to batch certification, and naturally derived additives, such as caramel color or grape color extract, that are not subject to batch certification. The European Food Safety Authority states that colorings are added to foods mainly "to make up for colour losses following exposure to light, air, moisture and variations in temperature; to enhance naturally occurring colours; and to add colour to foods that would otherwise be colourless or coloured differently." (EFSA, Food Colours)

According to the US Code of Federal Regulations, the nine synthetic color additives currently approved for use in food products, and their chemical identities, are:

 

*Citrus Red 2 is used rarely to color the peels of some Florida oranges; Orange B, approved only for adding color to sausage casings, is no longer used (CSPI 2016).

**FD&C No. 40, FD&C Yellow No. 5, and FD&C Yellow No. 6 comprise about 90% of all dyes used today (CSPI 2016).

FD&C stands for Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics and indicates that the coloring is approved for use in these product categories.

 

Below is a summary table of the 7 commonly used synthetic colorings and the foods they are typically found in, and amounts certified for use by FDA in 2010.

FD&C DesignationNameColorFoods Found InPounds Certified in 2010

Blue No. 1

Brilliant Blue FCFBlue Ice cream, canned peas, candy, drinks, dessert powders587,431
Blue No. 2IndigotineIndigo Beverages, candy, and other foods664,328
Green No. 3Fast Green FCFTurquoiseCanned peas, vegetables, fish, desserts, cotton candy, and other candy13,051
Red No. 3ErythrosinePinkCandy, popsicles, cake decoration and other baked goods, maraschino cherries208,876
Red No. 40Allura Red ACRed Cereal, gelatin, candy, baked goods6,094,445
Yellow No. 5TartrazineYellowSoft drinks, pudding, chips, pickles, honey, mustard, gum, baked goods, gelatin and other foods4,105,501
Yellow No. 6Sunset Yellow FCFOrangeCereal, orange soda and other beverages, hot chocolate mix, baked goods, and many other foods3,656,010

(Sources: ACS, FDA 2011, NPR)

 

Food colorings are available as water-soluble dyes or water-insoluble "lakes," used for low-moisture or fatty foods. For a list of all approved food colorings, their approved uses and restrictions, dates of approval, and corresponding names used in the EU (EEC#), view FDA's page "Summary of Color Additives for Use in the United States in Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics, and Medical Devices."

As a group, these synthetic colorings are known as azo dyes, meaning they contain the functional group R–N=N–R′, in which R and R′ can be either aryl or alkyl. Azo dyes are also used to color textiles and leather.

How Much Food Coloring Do Food Products Contain?

Product (Brand)Serving SizeAmount of Dyes (mg)

Pillsbury Confetti Funfetti Chocolate Fudge Frosting (JM Smucker)

2 tbsp. (34 g)41.5

Red, White and Blue Popsicle (Foodhold USA)

1 pop (55 g)21.6

Twizzlers (Licorice) (Hershey)

4 pieces (45 g)15.4

Skittles (Original) (Mars)

1 packet (61.5 g)14.7

Hawaiian Punch (Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc.)

8 fl. oz. (237 g)14.1

Fruity Pebbles (Post)

¾ cup (27 g)13.9

M&Ms (plain) (Mars)

1 packet (47.9 g)13.4

Sunkist Orange Soda (Dr Pepper/Seven Up/Inc.)

12 fl. oz. (355 g)12.6

Ken’s Light Raspberry Walnut Vinaigrette (Ken’s Foods)

2 tbsp. (32 g)10.2

Sugar Free Chocolate Wafers (Voortman Cookies)

3 cookies (27 g)10.0

Utz Baked Cheese Curls (Utz)

1 oz. (28.35 g) 8.6

Fruit by the Foot (Strawberry) (General Mills)

1 roll (21 g) 6.5

Open Pit Barbecue Sauce (Original) (Pinnacle Foods)

2 tbsp. (34 g) 6.5

(Source: Harp BP, Miranda-Bermudez E, Barrows JN. "Determination of seven certified color additives in food products using liquid chromatography." J Agric Food Chem. 2013 (61(5), 3726–36.)

Exposure and Metabolism

In the United States, in 1950 1.6 million pounds of synthetic colorings, or 12mg per person per day, were certified for use in foods. In 2015, 17 million pounds, or 67mg per person per day, were certified. One study has found that more than 90% of candies, fruit-flavored snacks, and drink mixes and powders targeting children contain synthetic colorings (Batada, in press). Colorings are also used in savory foods targeting children, such as macaroni and cheese, and in various products for both adults and children such as cake mixes, beverages, cereal, candy, snack foods, sauces and dressings, and ice cream.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's Brain Food Selector provides searchable information on specific food products containing synthetic colorings.

Below are statements on the absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion of some specific food dyes from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA, Scientific Opinions):

 

Brilliant Blue FCF is known to cross the blood-brain barrier (Peng 2009). As such, two members of the FDA's Food Advisory Committee have recommended that Brilliant Blue FCF be given special attention (CSPI 2006).

Acceptable Daily Intakes

Different agencies have established acceptable daily intakes (ADIs) for synthetic food colorings. The World Health Oraganization defines ADI as "[t]he daily intake of a chemical, which during an entire lifetime appears to be without appreciable risk on the basis of all known facts at the time." For more information on ADIs and risk assessment, please view our Risk Assessment page.

Food Coloring US FDA ADIJECFA* ADI
Brilliant Blue FCF 12.0 mg/kg body weight0-12.5 mg/kg body weight
Indigotine 2.5 mg/kg bw0-5 mg/kg bw
Fast Green FCF 2.5 mg/kg bw0-25 mg/kg bw
Erythrosine 2.5 mg/kg bw0-0.1 mg/kg bw
Allura Red AC 7.0 mg/kg bw0-7 mg/kg bw
Tartrazine 5.0 mg/kg bw0-7.5 mg/kg bw
Sunset Yellow FCF 3.75 mg/kg bw0–4 mg/kg body bw

*FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)

 

Comparisons between the FDA ADIs and estimated per capita levels of exposure as presented by the FDA Food Advisory Committee in 2011 are available in this agency PowerPoint (pages 23-24).

Health Hazards

Hyperactivity in Children

Benjamin F. Feingold, M.D., Chief of Allergy at Kaiser-Permanente Hospital in California, proposed in 1973 that artificial colors, artificial flavors, and salicylates (a compound found naturally in some plants), cause hyperactivity in children, and developed a special diet to help hyperactive children. This hypothesis was based not on controlled studies, but on years of observing patients and their responses to various foods. It garnered great attention and spurred many studies; the first controlled study suggesting a link between artificial food colorings and behavior was published in 1976. In 1982, the National Institutes of Health organized the conference "Defined Diets and Childhood Hyperactivity" to evaluate these early studies. The NIH panel concluded that the studies indicated "a limited positive association between 'the defined diets' and a decrease in hyperactivity" and that further research was warranted.

Following additional studies, a 2004 meta-analysis of 15 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies concluded that the "results strongly suggest an association between ingestion of [synthetic food dyes] and hyperactivity" (Schab 2004). A 2012 meta-analysis concluded the following: "A restriction diet benefits some children with ADHD. Effects of food colors were notable but were susceptible to publication bias or were derived from small, nongeneralizable samples. Renewed investigation of diet and ADHD is warranted" (Nigg 2012). Additional critical reviews support the hypothesis that diets free of artificial colorings can benefit children with ADHD. One 2014 review used guidelines developed by the Oxford Center for Evidence-Based Medicine to examine various non-drug treatments for ADHD, and concluded that the strength of the evidence for artificial food color exclusions was 4 out of 5 (Faraone 2014).

Two government-funded UK studies have had an impact on policymaking in the European Union (see Regulation and Advocacy, below): the first study, published in 2004, tested a mixture of four dyes and the preservative sodium benzoate on 277 three-year-old children, and found a general adverse effect regardless of whether the children were hyperactive, atopic (allergy prone), or hypersensitive (Bateman 2004). A follow-up study in 2007, known as the Southampton study, tested two mixtures of food colorings on 153 three-year-olds and 144 children aged 8 to 9, and concluded that "[a]rtificial colors ... in the diet result in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the general population" (McCann, 2007). Three of the six dyes tested in the 2007 study are currently permitted for use in foods in the US (Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40).

In 2011, 11% of US children 4-17 years old, or 6.4 million children, have been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). The percentage of children with an ADHD diagnosis continues to increase, from 7.8% in 2003 to 9.5% in 2007 and to 11.0% in 2011 (CDC, 2016). One study estimates that 8% of children with ADHD, or 500,000 using the 2011 diagnosis figure, have symptoms caused by food colorings (Nigg 2012).

Other Hazards

Concerns have also been raised that Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 can be contaminated with benzidine and other carcinogens, and that Yellow 5 is genotoxic. Red 3 has also been found to cause cancer in animals. At least four dyes (Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) have been found to cause hypersensitivity reactions. (Kobylewski, 2012)

Regulation and Advocacy

As stated above, in the US, food colorings are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. In addition to required batch testing for the nine synthetic food colorings currently approved for use, there are restrictions on the amounts permitted in food products, as well as permitted amounts of chemical impurities contained within the dyes. Regulation of food dyes began in 1906 with the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act, which called for artificial colorings proven to be "injurious to health" to be banned. At the time 80 dyes were available; by 1938, only 15 were approved for use. The disclosure of food colorings on ingredient lists for food products has been required by law since 1990.

The European Community's first regulation concerning food colorings was a June 1962 directive that permitted the use of 36 food colorings, 20 natural and 16 synthetic. In 1994, seven of the synthetic colorings were banned, and an additional coloring was banned in 2007. In 2008, Regulation 1331 created a new list of approved colorings. A list of currently approved food colorings (25 natural and 15 synthetic as of April 2016) is available here.

In April 2008, the UK’s Food Standards Agency advised the food industry to ban six commonly used synthetic dyes by 2009. This was based on a 2007 government-funded study published in The Lancet that found a link between the ingestion of food dyes (plus a preservative, sodium benzoate) and increased hyperactivity in children. The study’s authors concluded that children’s potential to learn in school could be affected by this change in behavior. Following these actions in the UK, the European Parliament passed a law (European Parliament and Council Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008) that went into effect in 2010 requiring warning labels to be placed on food products containing any of the six dyes. The warning states: "[coloring name] may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." The regulation also prohibited the use of food additives in "infant formulae, follow-on formulae, processed cereal-based foods and baby foods and dietary foods for special medical purposes intended for infants and young children." (Official Journal of the European Union, 2008)

Many food manufacturers that sell products in the EU have reformulated their products, using alternative food colorings that are not subject to the warning labels. However, in cases where the same food products are sold in both the EU and the US, the US versions often still contain synthetic food colorings. The UK Food Standards Agency provides searchable information on products that do not contain the dyes associated with hyperactivity.

Also in 2008, the US-based Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to ban the use of currently approved synthetic food colorings and to require that new food colorings be tested for possible neurological effects. While the FDA did convene a meeting with its Food Advisory Committee in 2011 and the Committee voted that additional testing was needed, FDA has not taken action.

In 2010, the European Commission asked the European Food Safety Authority to re-evaluate the safety of all approved food colorings by 2020. As a result, in March 2012, the acceptable daily intakes for these three food colors were lowered: E 104 (Quinoline Yellow/D&C Yellow 10), E 110 (Sunset Yellow/FD&C Yellow No. 6), and E 124 (Ponceau 4R). D&C Yellow 10 is approved only for cosmetics and drugs in the US, and Ponceau 4R is not approved for use in the US. Current updates on this work are available here.

The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), established in 1956, provides a database of information on various food colorings, including their ADIs (acceptable daily intakes). 

Corporate Policies

In January 2016, Mars agreed to remove synthetic colorings from all their candies. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, as of January 2016 these companies have started eliminating synthetic colorings from some or all of their products: Aldi, Campbell Soup Co., Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Frito-Lay (PepsiCo), General Mills, Kellogg, Nestle, Noodles & Co., Panera, Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, Schwan Food Co., Subway, Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods Market (CSPI, 2016).

Recommendations

Synthetic food colorings have no nutritive value, and studies suggest that some children, including but not limited to a sensitive subpopulation, are adversely effected by exposure to them. Though synthetic food colorings are clearly labeled on food products in the US, their prevalence makes them difficult to avoid entirely, and synthetically colored foods may also be served without ingredient labeling (such as in cafeterias and restaurants, at social functions, etc.). Given that there is no health benefit to ingesting synthetic food colorings and that colorings known to be safer are already available and in use, greater restrictions on the use of synthetic food colorings are prudent and recommended.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics: Food Additives (accessed April 27, 2016)

American Chemical Society. Eating with Your Eyes: The Chemistry of Food Colorings. October 2015. (accessed April 27, 2016)

Batada A. and Jacobson M. (accepted in Sept 2015). "Artificial Food Colors in Grocery Store Products Marketed to Children." Clinical Pediatrics.

Bateman B, Warner JO, Hutchinson E, et al. "The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children." Arch Dis Child, 2004; 89:506-11.

Center for Science in the Public Interest. Seeing Red: Time for Action on Food Dyes (report). January 2016.

Centers for Disease Control. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Data and Statistics. (accessed April 27, 2016)

European Food Safety Authority: Food Colours. (accessed April 27, 2016)

European Food Safety Authority: Scientific Opinions on the re-evaluation of: Brilliant Blue FCF (2010), Indigotine (2014), Allura Red (2009), Tartrazine (2009), Sunset Yellow (2009). (accessed April 27, 2016)

European Food Safety Authority. The re-‘E’valuation of Europe’s food additives. (accessed April 27, 2016)

 FDA Food Advisory Committee Presentation, Dr. Mitchell Cheeseman. Certified Food Colorings and Childhood Hyperactivity (PDF). March 30, 2011.

FDA. Consumer Updates: How Safe Are Food Additives?  (accessed April 27, 2016)

FDA. Summary of Color Additives for Use in the United States in Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics, and Medical Devices. (accessed April 27, 2016)

Faraone SV, Antshel KM. "Towards an evidence-based taxonomy of nonpharmacologic treatments for ADHD." Child Adolesc Psychiatric Clin N Am. 2014; 23(4):965–972.

The Feingold Association of the United States. List of Food Colorants (PDF).

Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Colours and food additives reported as banned. December 2012.

Forbes. Living in Color: The Potential Dangers of Artificial Dyes. August 27, 2012. (accessed April 27, 2016)

Health Canada. Proposal to Improve Food Colour Labelling Requirements. (accessed April 27, 2016)

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Smart Guide to Food Dyes (fact sheet), February 2009. (accessed April 28, 2016)

Kobylewski S, Jacobson MF. "Toxicology of food dyes." Int J Occup Environ Health. 2012 Jul-Sep;18(3):220-46.

 McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, et al. "Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial." The Lancet. 2007, Nov. 3; 370:1560–7.

NPR. FDA Probes Link Between Food Dyes, Kids' Behavior . March 30, 2011 (accessed April 27, 2016)

Nigg JT, Lewis K, Edinger T, et al. "Meta-analysis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives." J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012; 51(1): 86-97.e8.

Official Journal of the European Union L 354/16.   REGULATION (EC) No 1333/2008 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 16 December 2008 on food additives.

Peng et al. "Systemic administration of an antagonist of the ATP-sensitive receptor P2X7 improves recovery after spinal cord injury." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, July 28, 2009, Vol 106 (30) 12489-12493.

Schab DW, Trinh NH. "Do artificial food colorings promote hyperactivity in children with hyperactive syndromes? A meta-analysis of double-blind placebo-controlled trials." J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2004; 25(6):423-34.

UK Food Standards Agency. Products free from the colours associated with hyperactivity(accessed April 27, 2016)

UK Food Standards Agency. Current EU approved additives and their E Numbers. (accessed April 27, 2016)

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WHO/FAO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). Evaluations of the JECFA: List of Chemicals in Functional Class COLOUR (accessed April 27, 2016)