Regulating red dye in food: What progress has the FDA made in 2024?

The FDA is making strides to shut down red dye in foods - but not quickly enough for some advocates.
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Red dye is used in many consumable products since it offsets color loss from sun exposure and temperature changes and provides a vibrant shade to make foods look fun and appealing. However, recent studies have confirmed it can potentially cause health issues, alarming many advocacy groups and pressuring the FDA to take action.

With a petition filed in 2023, we're now a few months later... And if you're concerned about red dye in food, might be wondering about an update on the issue. We have your answers, below: learn how red dye in food can lead to adverse consequences and the FDA's actions to address the problem.

Overview of Red Dye in food regulation by the FDA

Food dyes are either synthetically produced by humans or naturally occurring from sources like vegetables, minerals, and animals. Synthetic additives require an FDA certification before being used in any products, whether cosmetics or foods.  Currently, nine of these have been approved by the FDA.

  • Blue No. 1: Used in beverages, confections, and popsicles
  • Blue No. 2: Found in baked goods, cereals and ice cream
  • Green No. 3: Present in sherbet, drink mixers and baked goods
  • Orange B: Approved for use in hot dog and sausage casings
  • Yellow No. 5: Found in condiments, beverages and yogurt
  • Yellow No. 6: Present in gelatins, dessert powders, crackers and sauces
  • Citrus Red No. 2: only approved to color orange peels
  • Red No. 40: Used in gelatins, puddings, and dairy products
  • Red No. 3: Found in icings, popsicles, and frozen dairy desserts

Young children especially love to eat these kinds of foods — so imagine the amount of synthetic chemicals they ingest on a daily basis. About 90% of food dyes used in the U.S. contain these three additives — Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. 

Besides these three, there's Red No. 3, which is extensively studied because of its potential adverse health effects. Research has pointed out it can increase the risk of cancer and other serious conditions. Health advocates hope the FDA forbids its use nationwide.

Red Dye has been banned in cosmetics, but not in food

In 1990, the FDA announced the expiration of the provisional listing for Red No. 3 for cosmetic products, including lotions, creams, face and body powder, and dry, liquid and cream rouges. Experiments on rats showed that color additives can cause cancer, leading to its ban on cosmetics and externally applied drugs. However, it remained accessible in foods and ingested drugs and has continually circulated in the country's food supply.

Now, the agency is under pressure to ban red dye in food after California passed Assembly Bill No. 418, which declared four additives — including Red No. 3 — illegal. Violation of this law is subject to a fine of $5,000 for the first offense and $10,000 for the subsequent breaches. The petition was filed in October of 2023 but is set to take effect in 2027.

The ban may increase food costs, but consumer advocacy groups strongly oppose it and hope it reaches a nationwide scale by urging the FDA to do the same.

Recent developments in Red Dye in food regulation

Most foods containing additives are unhealthy. Since almost one-third of Americans are changing their diet and opting for plant-based and healthier selections, prohibiting red dye can make food choices easier for many consumers and their children.

For now, the FDA continues to review studies to acquire more compelling evidence that is strong enough to revoke the provision. Three of the nine approved food additives are types of red dye in food.

  • Citrus Red No. 2 
  • FD&C Red No. 40, commonly known as Allura Red AC
  • FD&C Red No. 3 or Erythrosine

Health experts pile one study after another to prove the adverse consequences of these synthetic additives on physical health. Here are some of the notable ones.

1. Red No. 40

Based on a recent Canadian study, chronic exposure to this additive — similar to the rate people are exposed to it through foods — can worsen colitis or inflammation of the colon in mice. In addition, animals exposed to Allura Red early in life are likely to develop colitis later.

While it remains uncertain whether the same findings apply to humans, the conclusion is that long-term exposure to Red dye 40 can lead to colon inflammation through the increased serotonin levels in the gut that change the composition of the microflora or organisms inside the intestine. It’s a controversial ingredient in sodas, energy drinks, Doritos, gummy snacks, cereals, and fruit bars. Avoid them if possible.

2. Citrus Red No. 2

Citrus Red No. 2 is a dye that is only approved to color oranges and shouldn't be present in any food. The European Union categorizes it as a group 2B cancer-causing substance. However, Americans use it for one specific reason.

Warm temperatures affect the peel color of citrus fruits harvested in Florida, like oranges, tangelos, and temples. They can legally be treated with Citrus Red No. 2 dye to enhance peels into vibrant orange. This part of the fruit isn't ingested, so there are no negative health consequences.

3. Red No. 3

Recently, 20 advocacy groups and three individuals sent a petition to the FDA to embargo Red No. 3 after studies proved it could cause cancer and health issues in children.

A report in California found this dye to cause hyperactivity and neurobehavioral problems in children sensitive to it. The Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) asserted the level of safe intake of synthetic dyes was done decades ago and no longer reflects data from newer research, which may put children at risk.

Due to the increasing rates of children with ADHD over the last two decades, the California Legislature asked the OEHHA to evaluate the dyes, which the agency did for two years under the approval of the FDA. Researchers found evidence of their association with neurobehavioral problems in some children, which prompted the state to pass a bill that bans Red No. 3.

Why is it taking time for the FDA to act? Since using red dye in food encompasses a massive part of the industry, it's difficult for the agency to take prompt action. Plus, there are repercussions, like disrupted food supplies and increased costs. It may require another few years of evaluation before people get a response.

Consumer awareness is important

No one can guess when red dye in food will be removed from the market. Right now, it's still in grocery items you or your children may consume. What's the best way to avoid it? Awareness.

By familiarizing yourself with the names of the additives and checking your kitchen ingredients for any of them, you can make informed decisions from a healthier perspective. You can make better food choices by knowing what you put in your mouth.

Next. Foods and drinks with Red Dye 40 to avoid. Foods and drinks with Red Dye 40 to avoid. dark