Colorful Language: How To Identify Petroleum Colors in Food

We have been playing with our child’s diet, cutting out unnatural food coloring (made from petroleum), to see if it affects her behavior.  It’s not the sugar that’s causing the problems, at least not for her (I noticed dyes in her sugar-free pudding, no wonder she was still acting like a different kid after eating them).   Yellow 5 & 6 and Red 40 make up 90% of all food dyes used in the US.  Red is the most used.  Consumption of food dyes per capita has risen 50% just since 1990.  Some food colors have been pulled from US products because they’re proven to be carcinogenic.  Some countries place warning labels on foods containing all FD&C dyes, stating that they could cause hyperactivity in children.  Since we have no such requirement here in the US (although companies must place “artificial flavor” prominently on the front label….what’s up with that?), we must diligently read ingredient labels (See Artificially Rose-Colored Glasses and Devil In The Details for more info on that).  It takes some getting used to, but once you know what to look for, teach your kids how to identify the baddies, and locate the “good” brands, life gets a whole lot easier.

FD&C is a dirty word in my house.  My six year old treats it as such whenever she reads labels in the stores: “Oooooooh, THIS HAS FOOD COLORING IN IT!!!  MOM!  THIS COMPANY USES PETROLEUM FOOD DYES!!!”  It’s time consuming to read labels, but just might be really worth it for parents’ sanity…Here is a list of commonly used dyes, their names, and the products in which they may be found (By the way – canned peas???  Really???).

Food Coloring Names and where they are found:
Red No. 40 – Allura Red:  The most widely used food dye in terms of pounds consumed, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Found in cosmetics, beverages, cereal, gelatin, candy, drugs, baked goods.  Linked to hyperactivity in children.
Yellow No. 5 – Tartrazine:  The second most widely used food dye, according to CSPI. Found in soft drinks, pudding, chips, pickles, honey, mustard, gum, baked goods, gelatin, drugs, and pet foods.  Contains carcinogenic contaminants (benzene), and causes immediate, life-threatening allergic reactions in some people.
Yellow No. 6 – Sunset Yellow:  The third most widely used food dye. Found in cereal, orange soda and other beverages, hot chocolate mix, baked goods, cosmetics, drugs, sausages, cereals, and many other foods.  Rats in lab tests had adrenal adenomas.  Not a carcinogen but carries carcinogenic contaminants.
Red No. 2 – Citrus Red:  Used to color 2 billion Florida oranges per year.  Bladder carcinogen.
Red No. 3 – Erythrosine B:  Candy, popsicles, sausage casings, cake decoration and other baked goods, canned fruits, maraschino cherries.  Genotoxic and animal carcinogen.  Banned in cosmetics and externally applied drugs.
Blue No. 1 – Brilliant Blue:  Ice cream, canned peas, candy, drinks, dessert powders, mouthwash.  Tests showed kidney tumors.
Blue No. 2 – Indigotine, Indigo Carmine:  Widely used to color beverages, candy and other foods.  Tests showed brain gliomas, bladder tumors, and mammary gland tumors.
Green No. 3 – Fast Green FCF:  One of the least used food dyes, according to CSPI. Found in canned peas, vegetables, fish, desserts, cotton candy and other candy.  Tests showed bladder and testes tumors.
Orange B:  Hot dog and sausage casings. According to CSPI, batches of Orange B haven’t been certified for use in at least a decade, but nor have they been banned by the FDA, even after it’s own 1978 recommendation to do so.  Reason: Companies stopped using it anyway.  Ban it!

Caramel Color:  This is sugar that’s been processed with ammonia.   It’s used to add a brown hue to sodas, tea, baked goods, ice cream, vinegar, breads, beer, liquor, candies, sauces, gravies, batters, and pickles.  Many countries, besides the US, are required to list it as “ammonia caramel” on ingredient labels.  Yum!  Ammonia is linked to asthma and respiratory reactions.  I always heard friends say that diet soda was bad for me, but I never knew why.  My husband and I cannot drink certain supermarket deli iced teas because the massive headaches that result from this additive feel like someone is stabbing our brains out for hours.  This got me wondering about what happens to all these chemicals while drinks are stored in warehouses and store rooms.  Perhaps heat and cold can cause chemical changes, and make these baddies even worse?  I give more details on this sneaky swill in Caramel Coloring Sounds Sweet, But It’s Not – It’s A Carcinogenic Food AdditiveHere is a nifty article explaining why this ubiquitous additive is bad for you.

For more details on food coloring names and number codes, see this dye manufacturer web site.  By the way, am I the only one who cringes when I read the part about how you can tell what color they are making each day by the color of their workers’ stained skin????  Yikes.

Here is a great list of other unnatural, non-nutritive additives to watch out for, for other equally freaky reasons.

Now I don’t want my kid to be that one poor soul who can’t eat anything.  I want her to enjoy childhood, not feel like a freak, for chrissakes.  There are plenty of natural food colors to be had out there, just be careful.  I have called lots of fro-yo and ice cream shops to find somewhere we can get a treat without added dyes.  So far, only chocolate and vanilla are dye-free choices at large chains like Carvel, TCBY or Bruster’s (not all chocolate and vanilla are dye-free, so read your labels and ask lots of questions).  The Yogurt Tap makes all of their stuff on site without dyes.  Pinkberry does not use FD&C dyes, but does use caramel color and “natural flavors” – which could be anything – including MSG.  I have to go to the shop to check the big ingredient book at Menchie’s because they won’t post it online.  Smoothie King claimed that they don’t use food dyes.

As for natural food coloring, here is a list of some common ones:  Annatto (reddish orange), Chlorophyll and Spirulina (green from algae), Cochineal (also called Carmine – red violet, made from insects), Hibiscus flowers (red), Green tea powder (green, duh), Betanin (beet juice), Paprika (deep brown red spice), Saffron (bright yellow spice), Elderberry Juice (deep lavender), Red Cabbage (violet), Turmeric (golden yellow), Butterfly pea (blue), and Pandan (green).  Please note that annatto and cochineal (also called carmine) have reportedly caused allergic reactions in certain sensitive people.  As with anything, use caution when introducing new additives into your family’s diet.


7 Responses to “Colorful Language: How To Identify Petroleum Colors in Food”
  1. Grace says:

    Hey rebecca! I will try this again 😉 Is there a list that can be printed out with the names of additives and dyes? so we have a handy thing to keep with us as we read labels?

    • Indie Mama says:

      I will link to a list and put that up in the Resources – Helpful Links tab asap. Thanks for that suggestion!

  2. Are you doing Feingold? Because Bryer’s Natural ice cream is acceptable, also several Haagen Daz flavors.

    • Indie Mama says:

      I guess we sort of are on a near-Feingold diet but I’m only avoiding synthetic color, flavor, HFCS, and preservatives. I do like Breyer’s!

  3. Tara says:

    What a helpful blog- thank you!! My daughter is only 2 and a half but I’ve always considered a diet change in helping out her hyperactivity/acting out/meltdowns. I do have a question though- she eats the Chobani Champions yogurt- in the ingredients it says “turmeric (for color.” Is that a coloring we should avoid? Or is that a natural coloring? Thanks!

    • Indie Mama says:

      Hi Tara! Turmeric is just a spice that adds a yellow hue to foods. I use it in cooking and haven’t had a reaction. I have read a lot of reports from parents about their children reacting to a natural colorant called Annatto, though. Let us know how any dietary changes affect your child. Would love to hear your results. Not all people react the same, so keep a log of your child’s foods/snacks/drinks/treats from home and school for 1-2 weeks, and compare to their school/daycare behavior records for that time period, and for the weeks preceding the diet changes.

  4. Leah says:

    I have a daughter with autism and ADHD and wanted to go dye free to avoid medicating her, the only problem is reading labels is tricky. Thanks to this article it gives me words to look for. Thank you.

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