Food dyes are just one of the ingredients that have faced extensive scrutiny from an increasingly wellness-obsessed public. However, are the alleged risks of food dye just another case of food fear-mongering or a real cause for concern?

Fifteen million pounds of food dye are used in the US per year: to add color to food, to enhance the colors of food, to prevent foods from losing their colors, or to provide food with a more uniform color.

These are understandable goals. As evidenced by one study that showed that participants described the taste of a lemon-lime beverage differently depending on whether it appeared clear, brown, or pink, our sense of sight plays a substantial role in our sense of taste.

Yet is a better-looking food product worth the addition of an ingredient that not only will not make a food any healthier or more flavorful, but in fact be actively harmful?

The earliest food dyes were made from, of all things, coal tar. Modern food dyes are instead predominantly made from petroleum, which is... actually not much less gross.

Similar but distinct from dyes are "lakes," which are coloring agents that are not water-soluble and thus can only be used in products that also contain fats or oils.

Food dyes have been the subject of scrutiny more or less since they first appeared on the scene, first because they were sometimes used to mask filth and rot in products.

Nowadays, food dyes are more often used to mask the absence of nutrients in a low quality processed food or to make it seem "fun" and appealing to children; in fact, as much as 90 percent of all food dyes used are in products specifically oriented towards children.

This makes it particularly worrisome that children may be at the greatest risk from food dye's potentially toxic effects. Multiple studies, done on both children diagnosed with ADHD and those in the general population, show that food dyes appear to cause or exacerbate hyperactive symptoms in children.

Other studies suggest that the effects of food dyes may put a child with only mild symptoms over the "threshold" for a life-altering ADHD diagnosis.

Researchers estimate that about eight percent of children with ADHD show behavioral alterations after consuming food dyes, and another study found that children with ADHD performed worse on a recall test after dye consumption.

One possible explanation for these results is that attention deficit disorder is associated with physical hypersensitivities that make them uniquely vulnerable to the effects of dyes, but that such hypersensitivities are present in some typically developing children as well.

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Unfortunately, these health risks aren't the only ones associated with food dyes. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates that up to 7 percent of people with allergies may have sensitivities to food dyes.

Tartrazine (or Yellow 5), has been associated with hives and asthma symptoms, and a red dye called carminic acid has also been associated with potentially fatal allergic reactions.

Blue 2 has been potentially associated with brain tumors, and Blue 1 is known to be able to cross the blood brain barrier. Erythrosine (Red 3) has been associated with thyroid cancer in rats, and is already banned in cosmetics and externally applied drugs.

Finally, Red 40, the most popular food dye of all, has been associated with reduced reproductive success, reduced parental and offspring weight, reduced brain weight, lower survival rates, and substantially decreased activity in mice.

Reputable groups like The Center For Science In the Public Interest (CSPI) report at least some evidence for potential adverse effects in all nine of the artificial food dyes currently approved for ingestion, and recommend that these products be banned.

The CSPI also notes that some of these dyes contain documented carcinogens like benzidene, 4-aminobiphenyl and 4-aminoazobenzene, but at levels low enough to be presumably "safe." Plus, they point out that few studies have been done on the synergistic effects of all these different dyes, which are often consumed together.

Some dyes have already been found "guilty as charged" and removed from the market: Orange No. 1 was eliminated  after its presence in Halloween candy led to cramps and diarrhea in children, and Red No. 2 was banned after Soviet research found it a potential carcinogen.

So why have today's dyes slipped through the cracks? Likely, the fact that the FDA currently requires a specific causal link to be found between dyes and health problems rather than just evidence that there may be one.

The European Union has taken a more active stance on dyes, and now requires warning labels be placed on all products containing them. This has caused many major manufacturers to switch to natural alternatives to avoid public backlash, and some countries, like England, have even phased out the dyes altogether!

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Some popular dye culprits include Cheetos, Twinkies, Froot Loops, Pop-Tarts, Lunchables, Fruit Roll Ups, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. However, you also need to be wary of supposedly healthy products like “Light and Fit” Yoplait Yogurt, and even the peels of fresh oranges that could be colored by "Citrus Red 2!"

Even more disturbing is the use of food dyes to color medications. Researchers suspect that some medication allergies may actually be dye allergies, in which case dye usage is functionally preventing a certain portion of the population from accessing potentially beneficial treatments.

Ironically, dyes are even used in some medications for ADHD, the very condition they are suspected of exacerbating! Dyes are also common in other medications frequently used by children, like over the counter painkillers, cough syrup, and vitamins.

Many parents report seeing drastic improvements in children's behavior upon cutting dye out of their diet, so it could be worth at least trying before you put your child on a medication that could have lifelong consequences.

Since the kinds of food products likely to be dyed are probably processed ones that had little nutritional value in the the first place, you'll also be steering your child towards an overall healthier lifestyle and better food habits for life.

Food producers like Starbucks and the maker of NECCO Wafers are already starting to go food-dye-free, and Frito-Lay is in the process of phasing food dyes out. Stores with a health interest like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's have also committed to being food-dye free, as have certain online retailers.

The future of food dye may be more products made picturesque by healthy natural ingredients as opposed to synthetic ones.

For example, there's plenty of wholseome color to be found in, turmeric, beet root, paprika, carotenoids, chlorophyll, anthocyanins, and fruit extracts. Hopefully, one day the use of artificial food dyes will one day seem as archaic as the use of iceboxes!

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