Home / Blog / Synthetic Food Dyes: What’s Really in Your Cereal?

Synthetic Food Dyes: What’s Really in Your Cereal?

Artificial food dyes seem to be in everything, from packaged soups to candies, cosmetics to breakfast cereal. The FDA — Food and Drug Administration — has approved nine synthetic color additives for use in food. Are these non-nutritive food additives harmful? We will take a closer look at eight of these FDA-approved synthetic colors.

Blue 1 -- Brilliant Blue -- Food Dye E133

Blue 1, or Brilliant Blue, is found in baked goods, drinks, soups, marshmallows, peas, and more. It is often combined with Tartrazine (Yellow 5) to create green shades.

When combined with other additives, Brilliant Blue may inhibit brain development. A 2005 study published in the Oxford Journal’s Toxicological Sciences found Brilliant Blue’s inhibiting effect on mouse neurons was much greater when combined with MSG. [1] In 2006, Nestlé UK stopped producing blue Smarties with Brilliant Blue due to health concerns over the food dye.[2] The Center for Science in the Public Interest, in its June 2010 study “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,” calls for further studies to be conducted to determine whether Blue 1 is safe.[3]

Blue 2- - Indigo Carmine - E132 Food Dye

Blue 2, or Indigo Carmine, is found in baked goods, drinks, ice cream, cereal, and blue jeans. The indigo plant has long been used to dye textiles — like your favorite pair of jeans — but the food dye is a synthetic version of the plant derivative.[4]

In the “Rainbow of Risks” publication compiled by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), one study found male rats administered Blue 2 had a “statistically significant” number of brain tumors. CSPI recommends this color “should not be permitted for human consumption.” [5]

Citrus Red 2 -- Food Dye

Citrus Red 2 is approved for use only in the skins of oranges. It is injected into the peel of Florida oranges to make the exterior more colorful.

With only a modest dose, Citrus Red 2 is toxic to test animals, causing urinary tumors to develop in rats.[6] The International Agency for Research on Cancer recognizes Citrus Red 2 as a possible carcinogen to humans.[7] While we do not technically consume the artificially-colored skin, the carcinogenic dye may enter the food supply through contact from peeling oranges. Better buy organic oranges if you want to use zest!

Green 3 -- Fast Green -- Food Dye

Green 3, or Fast Green, is found in canned goods, candy, cereals, and other processed foods. Green 3 significantly increased tumors on both the bladder and testes in rats.[8] This artificial colorant is banned in the EU.[9] In the US, Fast Green is one of the least frequently used dyes: In 2009, the production of Green 3 accounted for only 0.1% of synthetic dyes.[10] With so little usage, no nutritional value, and questions surrounding its safety, Fast Green seems to be one more unnecessary ingredient in our food supply. CSPI calls for additional research before the food dye is considered safe.

Red 3 -- Erythrosine -- Food Dye

Red 3, or Erythrosine, is found in maraschino cherries, drinks, baked goods, and candy. Red 3 is a recognized animal carcinogen and was linked to thyroid cancer in 1990.[11] The FDA has banned Red 3 for use in externally applied drugs, cosmetics, and lakes. In 1984, the FDA Acting Commissioner Mark Novitch called the use of Red 3 “of greatest public health concern.”[12] Despite many years of concerns over its safety, Red 3 is still permitted in foods and ingested drugs. CSPI calls for a total ban.

Red 40Red 40, or Allura Red, is found in drinks, candy, condiments, meats, and other processed foods. Red 40 is the most widely used artificial dye in the US. In 2009, Red 40 made up 41.3% of all synthetic dyes.[13]

Red 40 was introduced into the food supply to replace amaranth as a red dye. It may cause hyperactivity in children and one study, though disputed, found it “accelerates the appearance of tumors of the reticuloendothelial system in mice.”[14] ND Health Facts claims 15% of participants in one study suffered from rash or hives after consuming Allura Red.[15] CSPI calls for its removal from the food supply.

Yellow 5 -- Tartrazine -- Food Dye

Yellow 5, or Tartrazine, is one of the most widely used dyes. It is found in many processed foods and drugs and is often combined with Brilliant Blue to create green shades. People with aspirin intolerances or asthma can be sensitive to Yellow 5. Some of these common adverse reactions to Yellow 5 include rash, migraine, runny nose, or anaphylactic shock.[16] A study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology in Oct 2010 found tartrazine causes kidney and liver damage in rats at both high and low doses.[17] CSPI notes that Yellow 5 can be contaminated with known carcinogens and quality testing continues to be important.

Yellow 6 -- Sunset Yellow -- Food Dyes

Yellow 6, or Sunset Yellow, is found in soups, dry goods, ice cream, and other processed foods. Yellow 6 causes adrenal tumors in animals, though CSPI notes that the FDA and the food industry disputes this claim.[18] As with most food additives, Yellow 6 can cause severe allergic reactions. Like Yellow 5, Yellow 6 can be contaminated with carcinogens.[19] Especially as it adds no nutritional value to food, CSPI calls the inclusion of Yellow 6 in the food supply an “unnecessary risk.”[20]

Found in everything from orange peels to cereal, artificial food dyes present varying degrees of risk while adding no nutritional benefit to foods. While small or occasional doses of these food dyes seem unlikely to do lasting damage, it is important to understand what we are consuming on a regular basis — and to be aware of how much artificial colorant we are ingesting.

Natural dyes, like saffron, beta-carotene (from carrots), beets, paprika, grape-skin extract, dried algae, and other fruit and vegetable juices offer a safer substitute for synthetic colors. Better yet, food eaten in season offers a rich bounty of color, no dyes required!

At iNatural Catering, we never add chemicals or preservatives to our menus. That includes synthetic food dyes! Instead, we use spices and juices to flavor our dishes and let the natural beauty of our food to shine through. Read about our philosophy to learn more.

This has been Olivia, the iNatural blogger. What are your favorite naturally colorful foods? I’ll put in a vote for roasted beets! Let’s not even mention the number of spatulas I’ve dyed orange-yellow from scooping puréed carrots into cake batter.

Be sure to visit the iNatural Catering blog again for updates about the company, the green eating scene in Atlanta, and advice on how to keep your diet free of chemicals and preservatives. We welcome feedback! Contact us by leaving a comment below, emailing us at info@inaturalcatering.com, or using our contact form.



  1. Pingback: Butter vs. Margarine: What's on my bread? - iNatural Catering

  2. Pingback: What is does "natural" mean? - iNatural Catering

Leave a Reply