To dye for: Chemical that makes sweet treats look irresistible linked to health risks

Synthetic food dyes that have been used for over a century to make snack cakes like Entenmann’s Little Bites Party Cake, and candies like Laffy Taffy and Brach’s Candy Corn, look brighter and more colorful. But they pose some scary health risks. 

It’s true that the colors of our food affect how we perceive their flavors. After all, that candy cane just wouldn’t taste quite so sweet and minty without its bright red and white stripes. But some food coloring simply isn’t worth the possible health harms, and that’s certainly the case for Red No. 3, a chemical to keep out of your diet.

What is Red No. 3?

Red No. 3 is a common food dye found in over 2,000 products in EWG’s Food Scores database of products. The scores of those food products are affected by the presence of the dye. 

The dye is used in many processed foods, from snack cakes to imitation bacon bits, but it’s usually found in decorated cookies and candies, especially seasonal candies. Brands of candy corn, Brach’s Conversation Hearts, and all sorts of peppermint-flavored sweets use it to create their bright, vibrant colors.

What are the health effects of Red No. 3?

Synthetic dyes have been linked to a wide array of health harms. In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration banned many uses of Red No. 3, saying studies had shown that very high doses can cause cancer. However the FDA failed to ban the use of the dye in food.

A 2012 study also showed that Red No. 3 can cause cancer in animals. 

And, like other synthetic dyes, it also makes children vulnerable to behavioral difficulties, including decreased attention, according to a 2021 study by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. 

Some children are more sensitive to the negative health effects these food chemical additives may have. Human studies show synthetic dyes are associated with inattentiveness, learning difficulties and restlessness in sensitive children. 

One study found that exposure to just one milligram of Yellow No. 5, another synthetic dye of concern, can affect the most sensitive children. 

The California health agency also found that current federal levels for safe intake of these food dyes might not protect children’s brain health. It noted that the current legal levels, set decades ago by the Food and Drug Administration, do not consider newer research. 

EWG, along with Center for Science in the Public Interest, has joined a petition calling on the FDA to follow its own science and finally ban Red No. 3 in food.

Get Your Free Guide: EWG's Guide to Food Additives

What can you do?

A diet that contains lots of highly processed food is linked to a greater risk of depression, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. EWG recommends limiting consumption of these foods. But if you do want to eat packaged products, there are some steps you can take to help limit exposure to synthetic dyes like Red No. 3.

Artificial food dyes must be listed on the labels of packaged foods, so check them to avoid anything that contains Red No. 3.  

You can also choose certified organic options to avoid the potential health harms associated with artificial food dyes. Organic packaged foods must meet strong standards that protect consumers from exposure to potentially harmful food additives, including Red No. 3.

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