Can Red Dye Cause Allergies or Behavior Problems?

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Red Dye 40 is an artificial product commonly used to add red color to a variety of different foods. This additive is approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

However, a number of products contain an amount of Red No. 40 that is two or three times the FDA ADI (accepted daily intake). The consequences of consuming much higher than recommended amounts are not known.

Additionally, some people can experience adverse reactions to food additives, even in amounts that are considered safe for most people. For example, food dye allergies affect about 4% of people who have allergies, and Red Dye 40 has been associated with migraines, worsening symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and a possible risk of cancer. Which people are susceptible and the size of the risk are not well defined.

What Is Red 40 Food Dye?

Red dye 40 is an artificially produced product made from petroleum and oils. It blends with foods to add a red color. It is one of the most common food additives in the US.

Artificial food colors, like Red Dye 40, are more stable than natural food coloring and are favored in foods that are intended to have a long shelf life. Red dye 40 maintains the food color for a long time, but it can break down into its components due to changes in temperature or pH before or after you consume it.

This dye and other food dyes can have a variety of effects on your body when you consume them and as they break down into their chemical components.

Common Foods With Red Dye

Red Dye 40 food dye is often added to cereals, beverages, gelatins, candy, puddings, and dairy products. It is also found in over-the-counter medical products, such as vitamins and pain relievers.

Red Dye 40 is highly prevalent in the US. It can be mixed with other food dyes to achieve a target color. For example, it may be added to mustard, dips, and many other foods that might not appear red.

You can typically look at the package label to find the ingredients and additives in the foods and other products that you consume. If ingredients are not easily found on the package, you can search for the product manufacturer information online to see if you can find the list of ingredients and additives.

Red Dye 40 is approved as an additive in Europe, and labels must state that the dye can be harmful to children.

Allergies

Allergic reactions to foods can include congestion, mouth sores, stomach upset, skin rashes, and more.

Red dye 40 is associated with hypersensitivity reactions, although the symptoms are not well defined or consistent.

With artificial food coloring, the chemicals that compose the dye can break down into very small molecules that are sometimes viewed by the body as a threat. The immune system may react as if the food dye components are an infection—which leads to inflammation and allergy symptoms.

Migraines

People who have migraines can experience migraine episodes in association with a variety of triggers. Food dyes, including Red Dye 40, have been associated with migraines.

Additionally, migraines that are associated with food dye exposure might have an allergic component and can be associated with allergy symptoms.

Behavioral Issues

The most closely examined condition in association with Red Dye 40 is ADHD. Researchers have found that restricting or eliminating Red Dye 40 from children's diets can improve symptoms of ADHD.

One study suggested that 8% of children diagnosed with ADHD may have symptoms related to consuming synthetic food colors, including Red Dye 40.

Research suggests that an immune hypersensitivity to chemical components of artificial food dyes could be the underlying cause of the behavioral symptoms that some children with ADHD experience in association with consuming these dyes.

A genetic predisposition to a food dye-associated immune reaction has been proposed as the reason why some people who have ADHD experience behavioral changes in response to food dyes, while most do not.

Safety

The long-term implications of Red Dye 40 consumption are being examined. Like many other dyes, Red Dye 40 contains benzidene, a human carcinogen. Carcinogens are substances that have the ability to cause or promote cancer due to their effects on the body.

This dye has not been linked to any specific type of cancer, however, and it isn't clear how much exposure could increase the risk of cancer.

Red Dye 40 is one of nine certified color additives approved and regulated by the FDA. The FDA says that these additives are safe "when they are used in accordance with FDA regulations."

Alternatives

In general, many foods and additives can cause a variety of reactions in people who are susceptible. People who have these reactions might begin to see a pattern of symptoms in association with certain foods, drinks, or medications.

It can be difficult, however, to notice a trend in your symptoms because sometimes you might not think of food additives as a potential cause. For example, different colored cookies or candies of the same type might have different coloring additives to give them their varied appearance, making it especially difficult to monitor your or your child's reaction to these foods.

If you think you or your child might be having a reaction to food dyes, try to keep a food diary and track your symptoms. But don't try to diagnose yourself. Talk to your doctor, who will consider all of your symptoms and health history as they work on identifying your problem.

While Red Dye 40 has been considered a possible risk factor for some health issues, it is not believed to be a higher risk than other artificial food additives.

Other Red Food Dyes

Red color is fairly common in processed and packaged food. A few other red dyes besides Red Dye 40 are sometimes added to food.

  • Carmine (4-aminocarminic acid), also known as natural red 4, is derived from the scale of dried insects. It has been associated with some types of allergic reactions.
  • Citrus Red 2, another artificial red dye, is used to color the skin of oranges. It has been considered to be potentially toxic.

These food dyes are not limited to just food and medications. Many personal care products, such as soaps and lotions, as well as cosmetics like eyeshadow, blush, and nail polish, can also contain these same dyes. The same is true for household products, such as cleaning supplies, crayons, and shampoo.

Adverse reactions to these food dyes can range from mild to severe. Common symptoms include headaches, itchy skin, face swelling, or hives. Severe reactions are similar to those of other food allergy reactions such as difficulty breathing, dizziness, fainting, low blood pressure, and trouble breathing.

As in other allergic reactions, anaphylaxis can result, so immediate medical attention should be sought at the first sign of a reaction.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can you get tested for red dye allergy?

No, there are no tests available to diagnose a food dye allergy. Identifying a food dye allergy often involves dietary restriction and tracking symptoms.

A Word from Verywell

The only way to treat food dye allergies is to avoid foods that contain problematic ingredients. It is important to learn how to read labels on foods, medications, and personal, household, and cosmetic items, as well. In general, eating more fresh foods that aren't processed is a good idea, because preservatives and additives do not add nutritional value or safety to foods.

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