How a radiant red food dye linked to cancer could still be lurking in Halloween baskets this year


A food dye that may cause cancer in high doses could be lurking in children’s Halloween baskets, experts warn.

More than a dozen health and campaign groups wrote to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week urging them to ban the red coloring that is prominent in popular candies.

Erythrosine, often known as ‘Red 3’, gives a distinct radiant red color, and is used by leading brands such as Brach’s, Tootsie, Pez, Jelly Belly and Peeps. 

Since the early 1980s, studies have shown the additive can cause cancer in laboratory animals in very high doses, and has been linked to behavioral issues in children.

It was banned in cosmetic products in 1990 for these reasons, but still remains in many food and sweets, including pastries and breakfast cereals.

A pair of 2016 studies found Red 3 is in more than one in 10 candy products, and that more than 80 per cent of children under two had consumed it in the past two weeks. 

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington DC based consumer advocacy group, led a petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the chemical last week.

The letter to regulators was signed by more than a dozen advocacy groups, including Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Children’s Advocacy Institute and Consumer Federation of America.

Experts stress that the actual risk of cancer from Red 3 is minimal. The FDA explained that the risk of developing cancer caused by the dye is no larger than 1 in 100,000 over a lifetime of consumption. 

For context, the danger posed by natural disasters is 70 deaths out of 100,000, while railroad accidents and air disasters are 6 deaths per 100,000.  

Popular candies like peppermints, candy pumpkins, candy corn, Pez, Dubble Bubble and Hot Tamales all contain Red 3, a dye linked to cancer and banned for use in cosmetics

The CSPI letter notes that the dye was deemed a carcinogen 32 years ago, when trials found that ingesting it increased the risk of thyroid cancer in mice.

This led to the chemical being banned in makeups and externally applied drugs like creams and ointments.

‘Illogically, although these external uses were deemed unsafe, ingested uses continued,’ the petition reads.

It goes on to read that there is no reason to permit the dye in food while it is already banned in cosmetic products over the same risks.

Similar dyes like Red 1 and Red 2 were banned in 1961 and 1976 respectively as well.

The FDA said it would ban Red 3 in foods shortly after it did in cosmetics back in 1990 but never did so, the petition says.

Dr Louis Sullivan, who served as Secretary of Health and Human Services at the time, said ‘there have been laboratory studies which showed that very high doses of Red 3, administered directly in the diet, caused cancer in rats.

‘In these circumstances, small as the risk is, we have no choice under the law but to end the provisional listing of this product.’

It managed to continue to stay available for food products, though. 

Red 1 was banned in 1976, with regulators citing similar concerns after mice who consumed the dye had higher rates of cancer than their peers.

Red 2 was given the axe in 1976 when it was linked to intestinal tumors in mice as well. This ban led to M&Ms stopping production of red candies for a decade. It has since returned using a different dye.

While Red 3 has avoided a ban, many manufacturers have replaced it with an alternative, Red 40, which does not carry many of the same risks but has been linked to allergies and mental disorders in its own right.

The CSPI petition accused the FDA of not considering the situation serious enough to go through with the ban.

What is Red 3? The cancer-causer hiding in your candy

FD&C Red #3, or Red 3, is a popular food coloring used in sweets and other foods to give them an appealing bright-red coloring.

It is commonly used in candy, pastries and fruit flavored snacks.

In 1990, it was banned in cosmetic products in the US after a study found it was linked to the development of thyroid cancer in mice.

The FDA said at the time it planned to ban it in food as well, but still has not more than 30 years later.

Also known as Erythrosine, it is derived from the chemical compound Fluorone.

Many leading manufacturers have replaced the chemical with Allura Red AC, of Red 40, instead as the latter is believed to carry less risks.

More studies have come out showing increased risk caused by the dye.

A 2012 study found that it can cause toxic damage to a person’s DNA, leading to longer term issues.

A 2020 Californian study linked consumption of the dye to behavioral issues in children like hyperactivity and inattentiveness.

In 2016, researchers found that the dye is in more that 10 per cent of candies on store shelves – and also in other products marketed to children. 

Another 2016 study found that 84 per cent of children aged two or younger had been exposed to the chemical within the last two weeks. 

‘It’s more like they forgot or didn’t deem it high enough priority to take action on over the past three decades,’ the consumer protection groups wrote. 

The FDA told it is reviewing the petition and will directly respond to the petitioners.

Brach’s, Peeps, Tootsie, Jelly Belly and Pez did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Continued studies have show the risk of Red 3 consumption over time.

A 2012 study from Brazilian researchers found Red 3 could cause genotoxicity – when the DNA suffers toxic damage – and causes permanent transmissible changes to strains as well.

Researchers did not determine the mechanism as to how it damages a person’s DNA.

In 2020, California’s Environmental Protection Agency found children who consumed Red 3 regularly were more likely to suffer from hyperactivity and inattentiveness. 

A 2016 study led by researchers from the University of North Carolina, Asheville found that the dye was being used in 11.1 per cent of candy products.

It is also was found in 3.3 per cent of pastries, 2.6 per cent of fruit snacks, and 2.6 per cent of cakes marketed towards children.

Another 2016 study, this one from the FDA themselves, found that 84 per cent of children two or younger had been exposed to Red 3 through their diets in the last two weeks.

Some of the companies still using the dye include some of America’s leading candy manufacturers whose products ended up in the baskets of children across the US.

Jelly Belly uses Red 3 in its candy corn. Classic candy brand Brach’s uses the dye in its Mellowcreme Pumpkins and peppermint candies as well.

The iconic Pez also used the dangerous dye in some of its tablet-size candy.

Popular playground gum Dubble Bubble, manufactured by candy-giant Tootsie, gets its pink coloring from the dye as well.

Movie theatre staple Hot Tamales, made by Peeps, uses the dye alongside its cinnamon flavoring.  


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *