Raising a red flag
Before you take a bite of that red velvet cake, be warned—some research suggests that it could come with a side of carcinogens.
Tempting as brightly colored foods may be, synthetic dyes have a track record of harmful health effects. Red dye no. 40 and yellow no. 5, among other dyes, have been linked to hyperactivity in children. Now red dye no. 3, also known as erythrosine, is the latest food coloring to come under closer scrutiny from both US lawmakers and regulators for safety reasons.
It’s been banned from use in cosmetics and topical medications for over three decades. So why is the red synthetic coloring, produced from petroleum, still found in candies, maraschino cherries, and even boxed mashed potatoes?
If you’d like some ruddy answers, we’re about to add some color to the picture.
By the digits
2,900: Number of food products in the US that contain red dye no. 3, according to the Environmental Working Group
Twice: The amount of red dye no. 3 ingested by US children aged 2-5 based on body weight, compared the overall population, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
36: The number of food dyes approved by the FDA
9: Number of FDA-approved food dyes that are synthetic
19 million: Pounds of the seven most-used food dyes that were produced for the US market in 2022
A California crackdown
On May 30, the Golden State became the first in the US to ban red dye no. 3, along with several other food additives, following the passage of Assembly Bill 418 (AB 418). The move follows a petition filed by over 20 consumer groups (pdf) last year to the FDA, calling for a ban on red dye no. 3. The filing cites studies that have found the dye caused cancer in rats.
The International Association of Color Manufacturers, an organization representing the color additives industry, and the National Confectioners Association dispute that the evidence is conclusive.
But the European Food Safety Authority banned edible use of red dye no. 3 (known as E127 across the pond) in 2008, with the additive only permitted in cocktail cherries and candied cherries. The UK has retained the restrictions, post-Brexit.
The European Food Safety Authority concluded in a 2011 study that an adult would need to consume 30g, about six, of cocktail cherries to reach the limit of the acceptable daily intake of erythrosine. That may explain why there is a common exception to red dye no. 3 in cherries—a person is unlikely to consume that volume of a decorative food item. That’s six ice cream sundaes, six Manhattan cocktails, or an indeterminate amount of Jello salad.
A brief history
Three key moments in US additive regulation
1881: The chemistry arm of the US Department of Agriculture begins research into food dyes.
1906: The US passes the Pure Food and Drug Act, signed into law by president Theodore Roosevelt, and the FDA is established to oversee its enforcement. The act prohibits the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious food, drugs, medications, and liquors…”
1938: The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C) is enacted, increasing the power and oversight of the FDA. It has specific rules on color additives being prohibited if found to result in or induce cancer when ingested by humans or animals.
Explain it like I’m 5
The Big Bad is… bureaucracy?
The FDA stated years ago that it would “take steps” to ban red dye no. 3 from foods, according to Consumer Reports. But nothing has happened, and the agency has been cagey about providing reasons why.
Bureaucracy is the primary suspect, according to Thomas Galligan, principal scientist for food additives and supplements at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“It’s absurd that it’s taken this long,” Galligan said in an interview with Consumer Reports. “In 32 years, there’s millions and millions of children who have been exposed to this chemical who didn’t need to be.”
Which of these products does NOT contain red dye no. 3?
A. Sausage casings
B. Instant oatmeal
C. Canned fruits
D. Instant rice
We’ll catch you red-handed if you skip to the bottom now for the answer.
The cochineal beetle, when crushed, produces vibrant, red carminic acid, which for hundreds of years has been used as a natural red dye. Dactylopius coccus, its scientific name, is native to the Americas, and was once used by the Maya and Aztecs. Today, the buggy byproduct is found in cosmetics, food, and textiles. If you eat ice cream, use lipstick, or enjoy California rolls, in all likelihood you’ve had a taste of these creepy crawlies.
Crushing the cochineals
Check out this video from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences that shows how cochineal extract is made.
Take me down this 🐰 hole!
Let them wear purple
One of the earliest synthetic dyes was created by accident. It was the year 1856, and then-18-year-old British chemist William Henry Perkin was attempting to make quinine, the anti-malaria drug.
He experimented with the substance aniline, an oily compound that can be derived from coal tar. While his efforts ultimately failed, Perkins did notice that when aniline was oxidized with potassium dichromate, it produced a black precipitate that was able to dye fabrics a lilac purple.
He patented the discovery under the name mauveine, and it would go on to become one of the first mass-produced synthetic dyes. At last, the color purple became more accessible to the general public in the Victorian era.
Historically, purple was a color reserved for royalty and the elite. During the Roman empire, purple dye was made by boiling the extracted glands of predatory sea snails. The industry was based in the city of Tyre, in Lebanon, hence the name “Tyrian purple,” and it took as many as 12,000 of these marine mollusks to yield just 1.4g of dye.
A pound of dyed Tyrian purple wool cost more than a person might earn in an entire year. Even if a commoner could get their hands on the money, Roman sumptuary law prohibited average citizens from wearing the coveted purple hue (Emperor Nero even made it a capital offense).
Are the potential health hazards of red no. 3 enough to put you off candy?
- I might pay more attention to ingredients from now on
- There’s no way I’m giving up Skittles
- I’m more of a chocolate person myself
In last week’s poll about the letter X, 48% of you chose the logo for Xena the Warrior Princess as the best X-featuring logo around!
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💡 What should we obsess over next?
The correct answer is B. Instant oatmeal. But if you’ve got the Quaker brand it could have red dye no. 40 lurking in there.