Potential Risks of Yellow 5 (Tartrazine)

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Tartrazine is a synthetic yellow food dye. It is also called FD&C yellow #5. Tartrazine is one of several azo food dyes made from petroleum products, and among several dyes and food additives studied for potential health impacts.

Yellow #5 adds color to make foods and soft drinks look more appealing. It's also approved for use in pills and other medications, and in personal care products such as skin care products, shampoo, and cosmetics. Some textile manufacturers also use azo dyes.

This article discusses allergies and other health conditions involving tartrazine, as well as a list of foods that often have yellow #5 listed as an ingredient and how you can know it's there.

Popcorn, chips, doritos, starburst, m&ms, sourpatch gummies

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak

Other names for tartrazine

In all, there are more than 100 other names for tartrazine that may be found on the product label. Some of these include:

  • E 102
  • Yellow Lake 69
  • Food Yellow 4
  • Acid Yellow 23
  • Trisodium

Tartrazine and Health Impacts

Tartrazine has long been suspected of being the cause of several symptoms and health conditions, though not all have been supported by research. Some suspected reactions include:

Is Tartrazine Still Used?

Yes, yellow #5 is still used. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires products containing tartrazine to list the ingredient on the product label. It also may say "Yellow No. 5" on the food or cosmetic ingredient list.

Research on Tartrazine

Tartrazine may be harmful to humans, despite the fact that the FDA has approved its use in specific products. Yet researchers continue to work to establish a link between yellow #5 and health impacts, including behavioral disorders in children or cancer.

Studies focus on the ways that tartrazine may:

  • Be toxic to genes (genotoxicity)
  • Be toxic to cells in the body (cytotoxicity)
  • Cause genetic mutations (mutagenicity)

Much of the research on yellow #5 is done through animal studies, and the evidence-based science on its impacts in humans remains lacking. However, the use of azo food dyes has been banned in other places outside of the United States.

Where Is Yellow #5 Banned?

Tartrazine is approved by the FDA for use in the United States. In some countries, such as Norway, yellow #5 has been banned in the past, as have other azo food dyes. In 2013, the European Union ruled that "the overall weight of evidence" did not support the finding that yellow #5 was toxic to genes, but the ruling called for further study.

Neurotoxin

Tartrazine appears to be a neurotoxin (toxic to cells in the brain) in studies done with rats. It's thought that tartrazine affects the nervous system in rats in ways that include problems with spatial memory and more.

Rats that were given tartrazine showed a number of changes in their central nervous system, including a shortage of brain neurotransmitters. Increased cell death in the brain was also noted. It is not known if these changes also pertain to humans.

Tartrazine Studies in Rats

Tartrazine's effects in rats are significant, such that other agents have been tested along with yellow #5 to see if they may play a protective role against the damage that tartrazine causes to the nervous system. A 2017 study with rats found that administering vitamin E (a neuro-protective agent) might prevent both the structural and behavioral changes caused by tartrazine.

Behavior Problems in Children

Tartrazine's effects are at the center of a few studies done in human children to assess behavioral changes.

Research on the use of artificial food colorings (AFC) in children has found that large doses (defined as 50 milligrams or more of AFC) caused a greater negative effect than on children than those who received less.

The use of synthetic food dyes has increased by 500% in the past 50 years. Behavioral problems such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have increased at the same time.

Yet there are many changes that have occurred during this time period beyond the adoption of artificial food dyes, and this correlation is not yet definitive.

Carcinogen

One study looking at DNA repair found that tartrazine had no cytotoxic (damaging cells) effects, but did have significant genotoxic (damaging DNA) effects at all concentrations studied. This damage could cause genetic mutations leading to cancer.

The study found that most of the damage was amenable to repair but that some damage did persist in specimens exposed to tartrazine, unlike those not exposed, even 24 hours after exposure. The conclusion was that prolonged exposure to tartrazine could trigger carcinogenesis.

It's important to note that even when DNA is damaged, many repair systems (such as tumor suppressor genes) can fix this damage.

Tartrazine During Pregnancy

Tartrazine and its effects during pregnancy are not well understood. Animal studies of prenatal exposure to artificial food colorings have found some problems, such as a decrease in motivation and anxiety in offspring of rats exposed during pregnancy.

Research on tartrazine in pregnant rats also suggests evidence of DNA-related:

  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Cardiomegaly (enlarged heart size)
  • Missing limbs and other skeletal deformities

Research findings in pregnant animals do not mean that there is a potential for problems in human infants. What these animal studies suggest, however, is that further research is needed until more is known.

How to Avoid Tartrazine

Tartrazine is found in a number of foods. While many products are labeled, others, such as ice cream and desserts, may not be.

Foods containing tartrazine include:

  • Certain breakfast cereals
  • Refrigerated rolls and quick breads
  • Cake mixes
  • Commercial pies
  • Commercial gingerbread
  • Butterscotch chips
  • Commercial frostings
  • Certain instant and regular puddings
  • Certain ice creams and sherbets
  • Certain candy coatings
  • Hard candies
  • Colored marshmallows
  • Flavored carbonated beverages
  • Flavored drink mixes

Tartrazine also is used in a number of other products. They include:

  • Cosmetics and fragrances
  • Hair care products, including dye
  • Hand soaps, creams, and lotions
  • Shaving products
  • Pet care products

The best way to avoid yellow #5 is to check the labels of these foods and products.

A Word From Verywell

Tartrazine is approved for use in the U.S. and can be found in a number of food and personal care products. While some studies suggest it may have health effects in both animals and humans, more research is needed. Ask your healthcare provider for more information if you have concerns about yellow #5 dyes and food colorings.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. Rafati A, Nourzei N, Karbalay-Doust S, Noorafshan A. Using vitamin E to prevent the impairment in behavioral test, cell loss and dendrite changes in medial prefrontal cortex induced by tartrazine in rats. Acta Histochem. 2017 Mar;119(2):172-180. doi:10.1016/j.acthis.2017.01.004

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Additional Reading

By Daniel More, MD
Daniel More, MD, is a board-certified allergist and clinical immunologist. He is an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and currently practices at Central Coast Allergy and Asthma in Salinas, California.