The Burning Question: Are Food Dyes Really Safe?

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YES: Extensive research confirms it.
Joseph Borzelleca, PhD, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine

Lab tests prove theyre harmless.
Each of the nine man-made dyes used in food went through 5 to 10 years of laboratory and animal testing before receiving Food and Drug Administration approval. There has never been a confirmed health issue related to food coloring in the United States, except for rare cases of allergic reactions.

The amount used is small.
To determine how much dye is safe to use, toxicologists take the highest dose that did not cause any adverse effect in animal tests and divide it by 100. The resulting number is the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI)—the amount any human can ingest every day for a lifetime without experiencing problems. Most foods containing dyes have only a tiny fraction of the ADI.

The FDA monitors food carefully.
If they get a complaint, they investigate. If they believe an ingredient is causing the problem, they may issue a recall and even ban it.

NO: They have known health risks.
Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest

Some may be linked to cancer.
Red 3 was shown to cause thyroid cancer in one animal study and has been banned from cosmetics and externally-applied drugs, but it is still permitted in food. Though there is no proof that the dye causes cancer in humans, theres reason to avoid it.

They may worsen ADHD symptoms.
Thats according to an analysis of 15 studies conducted at Columbia University and Harvard University. Two later studies commissioned by the British government found that children were more hyperactive when they ingested a drink containing food dyes equal to that in two to four 56-gram bags of candy (56 grams equals roughly 2 ounces).

Europe is taking action.
Last July, the European Union passed a law requiring most foods containing dye to display a warning label stating that the additives "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children."

The takeaway:
The strongest suggestion of harm is in kids with ADHD, so if your child has the disorder, talk to your doctor about whether your family should avoid dyes. Otherwise, theres no solid proof that theyre unsafe—but its never a bad idea to cut back on processed foods.