Food Dye Allergies

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Everything you need to know about food dye and food dye allergies, including what they are, what are symptoms of a food dye allergy, treatment, what to avoid, and how to stay safe. 

Food dyes and reactions to them are a controversial and yet increasingly common allergy. As many as 1% of all Americans are allergic to food dyes and don’t know it. 

Food dye allergies are more than just avoiding colored frosting. There are many products that use dyes including medications, cosmetics, body care products, cleaning products, inks in printers and pens, and even sprayed onto fruits. 

This article will talk about the 8 most commonly used food dyes as approved by the FDA as well as 2 other common food dyes.

Two popsicles on a bright colored background. A white hexagon has text that reads, "food dye allergies 101".

Key Takeaways

  1. Food dyes can cause a range of allergic reactions, from mild to life-threatening anaphylactic reactions.  
  2. Studies from both the USA and Europe have linked food dyes to other serious health concerns.
  3. Ingredient labels often have food dyes hidden under different names. The only way to totally avoid them is to purchase “Dye Free”  and “Artificial Coloring Free” labeled products. 
  4. California has proposed a bill to remove some of the most triggering food dyes and food additives. (CA Assembly Bill 418)

What are food dyes? 

Artificial food dyes are chemical and synthetic based dyes, often derived from either petroleum or coal tar, though other sources do exist to get different colors.

Natural food dyes are food based dyes, often derived from plants, animals, or mineral sources. Think things like beet juice or turmeric spices to make things pink and yellow. Again, other food sources exist to give different colors.

The FDA needs to certify all artificial food dyes in America. However, natural food dyes do not need this same level of certification and may be exempt from regulation. 

The 8 most common food dyes approved by the FDA are: Blue #1, Blue #2, Green #3, Citrus Red #2, Red #3, Red #40, Yellow #5, Yellow #6. 

What are food dye allergies? 

A food dye allergy is when the body’s own immune system thinks that food dyes are a threat. This triggers an autoimmune response called an allergic reaction. 

These reactions are serious as they can trigger a life threatening anaphylactic reaction. If you think you have a food dye allergy, you should avoid food dyes. 

A true allergy is one that triggers this IgE response. However, this does not mean that you can’t be sensitive to food dyes without causing an IgE response. Food dye allergies are very rare. However, food dye sensitivities are not rare and are on the rise. 

Some people are more likely to have a food dye allergy than others. These people include:

  • Having a peanut allergy
  • Having a shellfish allergy
  • Being young 
  • Working with dyes, for example, a hair stylist 
  • Working with plastics and chemicals in any manufacturing job 
  • Having asthma
  • Having allergies in general 

Symptoms

Symptoms for a food dye allergy are wide ranging and often depend on the type of dye and the individual involved. 

If you are allergic to food dyes you can have one or more of the following reactions. Note that reactions can occur minutes or hours after exposure. See the specific dyes below for specific reactions. In general, you can expect to see:

  • Anaphylactic reactions
  • Asthma attacks/breathing problems
  • Headaches/Migraines
  • Skin rashes, hives, red welts or bumps
  • Hyperactivity
  • Joint pain 
  • Digestive problems/GI problems
    • Itching or swelling in the mouth
    • Stomach pain
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea 
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Quickened pulse
  • Drop in blood pressure 
  • Confusion or cognition difficulties 

Anaphylactic Reaction

Anaphylactic reactions to food dyes are rare, however, they can still happen. 

If you have an anaphylactic reaction, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. 

Signs and symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction include:

  • Swelling and tightening of the throat
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Change of the normal coloring of the skin and in the mucous membranes (inner lips, gums, around the eyes, and the nail beds)
    • Light skin, check for signs of a dark blue tint in the mucous membranes
    • Medium skin, check for signs of a gray-green tint in the mucous membranes
    • Dark skin, check for signs of a gray or white tint in the mucous membranes 

If you have had an anaphylactic reaction in the past, talk with your doctor and/or your healthcare provider about receiving an epinephrine auto-injector (commonly called Epi-Pens). 

Why do we use food dyes? 

Simply put, to make food look pretty. 

Humans are visual creatures and we like what we eat to look appetizing.

Non-food products also use food dyes. Things like make up, body care products like shampoos and body wash, pet foods, and even your toothpaste have food dyes in them. 

This is all done on a purely aesthetic choice. 

FDA Regulations 

At the turn of the century, companies were facing increasing demand for better preserved and more beautiful foods. They added more chemicals in an effort to preserve and beautify. These included things from food dyes to vinegars to meats preserved with formaldehyde.

The newly formed FDA researched if these artificial colors were safe for human consumption. (1)

The “Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906” approved 7 artificial food dyes for human consumption.

The current list of approved food dyes is very long.

The FDA has declared that most food dyes pose no significant health risks. Foods, medications, and many other products can all contain food dyes in various forms.

As of April 2023, California has proposed a bill to remove some food dyes and food additives in light of research suggesting that they are harmful. See below for more details. 

FAQs 

Are food dyes safe?

The FDA states that approved food dyes are safe if eaten at approved amounts. Europe and other countries have different health and safety standards and some dyes approved in America are banned in those countries.

If you are allergic to any food dye, it is never safe for you to consume in any amount.

What are good alternatives to synthetic food dyes?

Natural and food based dyes are good alternatives. Many companies are now offering natural based food dyes. Here are a few ideas to get started.

– Watkin’s Natural Food Dyes
– Unicorn Superfoods
– 365 Natural Food Dyes
-Sweetopolita Natural Food Dye Sprinkles

What are Azo Dyes? 

Azo dyes are a group of nitrogen containing chemicals added to foods for a color effect. The majority of food dyes in America are Azo dyes. 

What is the difference between dyes and lakes?

In the US, food dyes can be labeled as either a “dye” or a “lake”. 

Dyes dissolve in water but are not soluble in oil. They are made as powders or liquids generally and are added to all types of products. 

Lakes are the combination of dye and an insoluble material and are not oil soluble but are oil dispersible. They are more stable than dyes, especially in products that contain fat and oil. They are typically used in things like coated tablets, cakes, baking mixes, hard candies, lipstick, soaps, etc. 

What about Orange B food dye?

Orange B was an approved food dye. The FDA approved this color for use in hotdogs and sausages. Concerns arose around this food dye being a carcinogen in the 1970s. The only supplier of this food dye stopped manufacturing it in response to the concerns. It is no longer in use.

FDA Approved Colors  

Many oranges on an orange tree.

Citrus Red #2

  • Also known as: Citrus Red No. 2, C.I. Solvent Red 80, C.I. 12156
  • Commonly found in: Citrus fruits except for those grown in California and Arizona. 
  • Specific Symptoms: Animal studies have found that this food dye can cause growth of tumors in lab animals. 

Citrus red #2 is a synthetic chemical color additive that is an azo compound. 

The FDA approved the use of this as a coloring aid for making oranges appear more orange in the 1950s. The only kind of orange that can have this food dye are those grown for peeling and eating. Orange juice oranges will not have this dye.

Legally, oranges colored with Citrus Red #2 should not contain more than 2.0 parts per million of the dye, calculated on the weight of the whole fruit. Dyed oranges must contain a disclosure on their label. (2)

FDA testing showed that citrus red #2 was a carcinogen in the 1970s.

The California OEHHA has given this a Prop 65 warning as a possible cause of cancer. The states of California and Arizona have banned the use of this dye. (3)

Be careful not to ingest this food dye when zesting or peeling citrus fruits while cooking or baking. Make sure to use dye free fruits. 

Purchase organic fruits to totally avoid this dye. You can also purchase fruit grown in California or Arizona as they have banned this dye. 

Many maraschino cherries in a dark bowl on a dark tabletop. A few cherries are scattered around the bowl.

Red #3

  • Also known as: Erythrosine, E127, FD&C Red No. 3, Food Red 14, Acid Red 51  
  • Commonly found in: Maraschino cherries, candy, baked goods, sausages, medications, printing ink, dental plaque disclosing agents, used to color pistachio shells  
  • Specific Symptoms: Hives, facial flushing, facial swelling, difficulty breathing, dizziness, GI and stomach upset, and generalized hyperactivity. Animal studies have linked this food dye to a generalized increased risk for cancers. This dye can also cause anaphylactic reactions. 

Red #3 is made from a derivative of coal tar and fluorine. It gets the red coloring from the use of cochineal, a type of beetle. If you have a shellfish allergy, you might want to avoid this. 

This is one of the most used food dyes with over 2,900 products containing Red 3. It is especially popular to use around Valentine’s Day and Easter. (4)

The FDA recognized this food dye as a thyroid carcinogen in animals in the 1990s. This dye was banned for use in cosmetics and topical drugs. (5)

Food can still contain this food dye. The FDA has received proposals to ban this dye. However, it has not taken any action. All food labels must show this dye in their ingredients. That makes it easy to avoid this food dye.

The EU has banned red #3 in all food products except for cherries and pet food.  

As of April 2023, California has proposed a bill to remove some food dyes and food additives in light of research, specifically Red Dye #3 among others, suggesting that they are harmful. See below for more details. 

Glass jars are filled with different types of red candies. They are on a white table and background.

Red #40 

  • Also known as: Allura red, food red #17, FD&C Red 40, E123 
  • Commonly found in: Anything red colored, fruit cocktail, candy, salad dressing, chocolate cake, breakfast cereals, beverages, pastries, cherries, fruit snacks, and OTC pharmaceuticals 
  • Specific Symptoms: Migraines, headaches, jitteriness, inability to focus, upset stomach, face swelling, and hives. Animal studies have linked this dye to possible reproductive changes. 

Red #40 is one of the most common food dyes and is responsible for many of the allergic reactions. 

If you have an allergy to shellfish you should avoid this food dye as it possibly contains the cochineal beetle. This beetle is a known cross-reactive protein.

If you have an allergic reaction to aspirin or an intolerance of aspirin, Red 40 may cause an allergic reaction in the form of a skin rash and/or nausea. (6a)

Red #40 is made from coal tar or petroleum and is a by-product of the oil industry. 

This food dye drastically effects the behavior of children. Europe requires a health warning on all products with this dye.

It is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland. (6b)

3 yellow popsicles on a bright orange background.

Yellow #5

  • Also known as: Tartrazine, E102, CI 19140, FD&C Yellow 5, Yellow 5 Lake, Acid Yellow 23, Food Yellow 4
  • Commonly found in: Breakfast cereals, bread and cake mixes, condiments, beverages, ice cream, popsicles, hard candy, frozen foods, instant pudding, cookies, popcorn, jams, jelly, chips, snack foods, medications, vitamins, antacids, throat lozenges, pet foods, bar soaps, liquid soaps, body care products, cosmetics, nail polish, temporary tattoos, tanning lotions, cleaning products, crayons, inks, glues, and deodorants 
  • Specific Symptoms: Severe allergic reaction, rashes, nausea, headaches, asthma attacks, hyperactivity, anxiety, blurred vision, itching, general weakness, heatwaves, feeling of suffocation, purple skin patches, and sleep disturbances. Some studies have linked this dye to cancerous tumors. 

Yellow #5 is made from a derivative of coal tar as a low cost version of beta carotene. Green food dyes use this yellow as a base color.

It is one of the most allergy causing dyes of all the azo dyes, especially if you have asthma or are allergic to aspirin. Symptoms of a reaction to tartrazine can occur minutes or up to 72 hours after exposure. Estimates state around 10% of all Americans are allergic to this dye. (7)

This food dye requires a special warning label on food sold in Europe. (8) It is banned in Norway. The UK is currently doing a study on the safety of this additive. The EU directive 94/36/EC lifted the ban on this dye in Austria and Germany. (9)

A white bowl is filled with Mac and cheese. It rests on a wood tabletop.

Yellow #6

  • Also known as: Sunset Yellow FCF, Monoazo, Orange yellow S, C.I. 15985, FD&C Yellow 6, E110 
  • Commonly found in: Mac and Cheese, chocolate, caramel, chips, baked goods, breakfast cereals, beverages, desserts, candies, gelatin desserts, sausage, dried fruit, pharmaceuticals, makeup, body care products 
  • Specific symptoms: Vomiting, diarrhea, rashes and swelling of skin, rash of the skin similar to nettle rash, migraines, worsening of asthma, inability to focus, and some cancers of the adrenal glands and kidneys 

If you have an allergic reaction to aspirin or an intolerance of aspirin, Yellow #6  may cause an allergic reaction in the form of a skin rash and/or nausea. If you have asthma, Yellow #6 can worsen asthma symptoms or cause asthma attacks. (10a)

Yellow #6 is a dye made from petroleum derived ingredients and is an azo dye. A golden color for things like chocolate and caramels use annatto and yellow #6 together. It is closely related to yellow #5. 

The Hyperactive Children’s Support Group and the UK’s Food Standards Agency have both recommended that this dye be removed from children’s food. (10b)

This food dye has been banned in Norway and Finland. 

Green jello in a bundt shape on a white plate with greenery next to it.

Green #3

  • Also known as: Fast Green FCF, FD&C Green #3, Food Green 3, Green 1724, Solid Green FCF, C.I. 42053, E143
  • Commonly found in: Green foods, peas, vegetables, jams, jelly, sauces, desserts, medications, OTC pain relief, cough syrups  
  • Specific Symptoms: Rashes, hives, itchy skin, severe headaches, facial swelling, tightness of the chest, difficulty to breathe, and difficulty to focus.  Some studies have linked this food dye to reproductive cancers in humans.  

Green #3 is not an azo dye, it is a synthetic turquoise triarylmethane food dye. 

Although most companies use a combination of yellow and blue food dyes individually to make a green dye, some still use Green #3.

Europe has banned green #3 in the majority of products.

However, Europe still allows this dye in tinned green peas and other vegetables, jellies, sauces, desserts, and dry baking mixes at a level up to 100 mg/kg. (11) 

Close up of a blue ice cream scoop on a cone.

Blue #1 

  • Also known as: Brilliant Blue FCF, FD&C Blue No. 1, Food Blue 2, D&C Blue No. 4, Alzen Food Blue No. 1, Alphazurine, Atracid Blue FG, Erioglaucine, Eriosky blue, Patent Blue AR, Xylene Blue VSF, C.I.42090, Acid Blue 9, E133, Aluminum Lake 
  • Commonly found in: Candy, ice cream, canned peas, soups, icing, popsicles, blueberry flavored products, medication, yogurts, soda pops, beverages, Blue Curacao, soaps, shampoos, mouthwash, body care products, face care products, make up (especially foundation, eyeshadow, and lipsticks) 
  • Specific symptoms: Makes asthma symptoms worse, difficulty focusing, and hypersensitivity. Studies have shown that Blue 1 can cause chromosomal damage. 

Blue #1 is produced by the combination of chemicals, derived from coal tar or petroleum, making it synthetic, and is classified as a triarylmethane dye, similar to Green #3. 

The bloodstream can directly absorb blue #1 through the skin. (12)

Biological stains and medical devices (the Hemo Patch) commonly use this dye to coagulate the blood. (13)

Blue #1 is banned in Norway, Finland, and France.

The Hyperactive Children’s Support Group and the Feingold Association recommends this food dye to be eliminated from children’s food. (14)

Close up of many pairs of blue jeans lined up.

Blue # 2 

  • Also known as: Indigo Carmine, Indigo Blue, FD&C Blue No. 2, Indigotine, E132 
  • Commonly found in: Used to color blue jeans, beverages, candy, frozen desserts, breakfast cereals, pet food, pharmaceuticals 
  • Specific Symptoms: Asthma attacks, skin rashes, severe allergic reactions, hives, and increased blood pressure. Studies have suggested a link between this food dye and brain tumors.  

This is a synthetic version of indigo, which is a natural dye. However, Blue #2 is derived from petroleum products. 

This dye aids in the visualization of urological and gynecological or endoscopic procedures. For example, a contrast dye for the urinary tract inspection. This medical use can cause a possible dangerous increase in blood pressure. (15)

This food dye is banned in Norway, Belgium, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany and Great Britain 

Additional Synthetic Coloring 

A close up of a glass filled with soda pop with a red straw. A second glass is blurred in the background.

Caramel Coloring 

  • Also known as: E150, E150a, E150b, E150c, E150d 
  • Commonly found in: Beverages such as soda pop, tea, dairy, liquors, whiskey, cookies, crackers, baked goods, soy sauce, wine, rum, cake mixes, frostings, gravy, BBQ sauces, balsamic vinegar, candy, chocolate, protein bars, meat rubs, sauces, pet foods 
  • Specific Symptoms: Rash, hives, itchy skin, facial flushing, facial swelling, severe headache, tightness in chest, and difficulty breathing. Animal studies have found an increased risk of cancers associated with caramel coloring. 

Caramel coloring is made from treating sugar with ammonia. The sugar can be derived from sources such as wheat, corn, barley, or lactose. 

If you have a wheat, gluten, corn, or milk allergy, you should probably avoid this food dye. It is considered allergy safe as it is highly processed. However, if you are very sensitive you can still have allergic reactions. 

The state of California requires a cancer warning label on products with more than 30 micrograms of this food dye. 

In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer flagged this additive to be possibly carcinogenic to humans. 

After that study, the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) declared that an acceptable daily intake of 300 mg/kg of body weight a day was acceptable. (16)

A tube of toothpaste is adding toothpaste to a bamboo toothbrush in front of a solid orange background.

Titanium Dioxide 

  • Also known as: Titanium (IV) Oxide, Titania, Titanium white, Pigment White 6, C.I. 77891
  • Commonly found in: Wide range of products from paint to toothpaste to food dyes 
  • Specific Symptoms: Irritating to the eyes, inhaling the dust is an occupational hazard linked to lung cancer, and can be irritating to the skin (17)

Titanium dioxide is a grandfathered approved food dye per the 1906 act. There are increasing studies shown, particularly in Europe, that this food dye can cause allergic reactions and other health concerns. 

Titanium dioxide is used for the following:

  1. Food Dye. It is used to make things light and bright.
  2. Food preservation. It is added to increase the shelf life of products. 
  3. Sunscreen. It has UV light resistance and helps to prevent sunburns. 
  4. Cosmetics. It is used as a color enhancer in things like lipsticks, creams, and powders. 
  5. Toothpaste. It is used to whiten and brighten both the toothpaste and your teeth. 
  6. Paint and Crafting. It is used to whiten and brighten paints, glues, craft items, ceramics, enameling, or painting (acrylics and oils). 
  7. Other. Eye drops, Milks, Cottage Cheese, and dairy products can sometimes contain unlabeled titanium dioxide. 

To produce titanium dioxide, first process chloride and reduce with carbon, oxidize with chlorine and then distill. Finally, re-oxidize with oxygen to get pure titanium dioxide. (18)

It is generally recognized as a safe additive to foods or other products by the FDA. There is no current recommended safe amount to ingest every day as it is not recognized as harmful.

As of 2022, titanium dioxide is banned in Europe and other countries. It is still allowed in the US and Canada. 

Diagnosing Food Dye Allergies 

A diagnosis begins by sharing your medical history and suspicions with your doctor. 

An allergist is the most frequent doctor to diagnose food dye allergies. 

There are no current allergy tests to check for a food dye allergy. The best way to decide if you have a food dye allergy is to avoid the food and see if symptoms improve. 

How to Manage

The best way to manage any food dye allergy or sensitivity is to avoid any and all forms of food dyes to the best of your abilities. 

As with most allergies, the more frequently you are exposed to the allergy, the worse your reaction will be over time. 

If you are still trying to diagnose or have developed new symptoms, a food and life journal can be extremely helpful. These are daily records of what you eat and encounter and how you react and feel afterwards. This is helpful to track and see what patterns emerge. 

For a free food journal, click here

Treatment

The only treatment is to avoid food dyes as much as possible. 

Benadryl can help with some mild reactions. Talk with your doctor if you are having many reactions in a week.

Go to the ER for any severe reactions to food dyes.

California Bill 

The California Assembly Bill 418 (19) aims to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and distribution of food products in California containing Red Dye #3, titanium dioxide, potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil, and propylparaben. If passed, this bill would go into effect Jan 1, 2025. 

The American Chemistry Council is against this bill, claiming that it is an unnecessary burden on manufacturers. The National Confectioners Association also opposes the bill.

If passed, AB 418 would make California the first state in the US to ban the use of these chemicals in processed foods. 

More Allergy Articles 

Resources   

  1. https://www.fda.gov/about-fda/fda-basics/when-and-why-was-fda-formed#:~:text=Though%20FDA%20can%20trace%20its,Pure%20Food%20and%20Drugs%20Act 
  2. https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/21/74.302  
  3. https://oehha.ca.gov/chemicals/citrus-red-no-2  
  4. https://www.ewg.org/foodscores/ingredients/19151-RED3/search/  
  5. https://www.consumerreports.org/health/food-additives/red-dye-3-banned-in-cosmetics-but-still-allowed-in-food-a3467381365/  
  6. https://www.chemeurope.com/en/encyclopedia/Allura_Red_AC.html  
  7. https://www.chemblink.com/products/1934-21-0.htm   
  8. https://www.chemeurope.com/en/encyclopedia/Tartrazine.html 
  9. http://ukfoodguide.net/e102.htm 
  10. https://www.chemeurope.com/en/encyclopedia/Sunset_Yellow_FCF.html  
  11. https://www.chemeurope.com/en/encyclopedia/Fast_Green_FCF.html   
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23127598/  
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4694675/  
  14. https://www.chemeurope.com/en/encyclopedia/Brilliant_Blue_FCF.html  
  15. https://journals.lww.com/fpmrs/Abstract/2009/02000/The_Safety_of_Intravenous_Indigo_Carmine_to_Assess.3.aspx  
  16. https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2004  
  17. https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2903/j.efsa.2021.6585  
  18. https://www.chemeurope.com/en/encyclopedia/Titanium_dioxide.html  
  19. https://a46.asmdc.org/press-releases/20230222-assemblymember-jesse-gabriel-introduces-first-nation-legislation-ban-sale  
  20. Toxicology of food dyes – PubMed (nih.gov) 

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