Before I lived eczema through my children, I never batted an eyelid to eating all the processed foods with tons of additives. I have since learnt. A lot. This article is part of a series that discusses allergies to food additives, with particular focus on food dye side effects.
The other articles in the series can be found here:
- Allergies to Food Additives – Preservatives (trans fat, BHA/BHT, sulfur dioxide and sulfites)
- Allergies to Food Additives – Flavour Enhancers (MSG, aspartame, high fructose corn syrup)
- Allergies to Food Additives – Texture Enhancers
Why food dye, and what are they made of
The reason is obvious. It is to colour the food, so that it looks attractive. Eating is not just about the taste and the smell. It is a whole sensory experience involving sight and texture as well. Processed food manufacturers add food dyes to the food so that more people will be attracted to buy them. Imagine grey sausages? Or dull beige colour potato chips?
Most synthetic food colourings use petroleum or crude oil as a base. It is so much processed that frequently, very little of the original petroleum is found in the finished food dye. But still, I find it hard to stomach the fact that I had been eating petroleum in my cakes and cookies for the past few decades!
I questioned, why synthetic food dye when nature is so full of vibrant colours? From the manufacturers’ point of view, the answers are simple: cost, versatility, and shelf life.
It is much more cost effective to mass produce food dyes in the factories, with a common base which is petroleum, than to extract them out of nature, which requires different methods of extraction for different colours from different plants. Moreover, not every substance in nature can be made into a food dye, hence there are practical constraints when it comes to choices and versatility. Lastly, synthetic food dyes have a much longer shelf life than colours extracted from nature.
So I can understand where the food manufacturers are coming from, in using synthetic food dye. But it doesn’t mean I agree with their lack of principle when it comes to the interest of their consumers’ health.
Types of foods containing food dye
This list is not exhaustive, in fact if you really want to list them, it is endless. In general, any processed food will have a possibility of containing food dye. So keep your eyes peeled on the ingredients list.
- chocolate that are colour-coated
- ice cream
- beverages, like soda and packet juice
- canned food
- per-packed meals
- even some medicines! (like liquid antibiotic)
Types of food colourings
These are the food colourings approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:
- blue #1
- blue #2
- green #3
- red #3
- red #40
- yellow #5 (tartrazine)
- yellow #6
The list is short, but the harm goes a long way.
The harmful effects on us
Food dyes have been linked to allergic reactions, hyperactivity in children, and even cancer.
Blue #2, Red #40 and tartrazine (in particular), are known to trigger allergic reactions such as swelling and hives, eczema flares, allergic rhinitis, and even asthma attacks. Serious anaphylactic reactions have been linked to food dyes, so the danger is there for sure.
Food colourings are known to affect children behaviour in general, leading to hyperactivity. Children who took foods with colourings were observed to be overactive, inattentive, and impulsive. So that leads to an issue of public health. There have also been some controversial studies that point to children with ADHD (attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder) being more sensitive to food colourings.
Red #3 caused cancer in rats. Red #40, tartrazine and yellow #6 are tainted with cancer-causing contaminants. Evidence has also suggested a link, though not proven yet, between blue #1, blue #2 and green #3 to cancer in animals.
So really, I’m not sure where the food industry is sending the world to, with all these harmful food dyes which are not necessary, but just to make the food look more appealing so that people will buy them.
Natural alternatives (limited choices)
If you really want your home made meals or party food to look vibrant and appetizing, do go for natural colourings. Even though the choices and variety of colours may be limited, but I’m sure the party-goers will appreciate your sincere efforts to take care of their health. I’m sure no one will miss the brilliant blue icing on the cupcakes.
We had used purple sweet potato in one of the children’s birthday cakes before! It’s strange that the dark purple from nature looked more artificial than the regular brown, yellow, or green coloured cakes that we are so used to! The guests were surprised by the colour, but happy to be fed healthy food, and wasted no time in chomping it all down!
Some examples of the beautiful colours from nature:
- purple: sweet potato, grape, blueberry
- red: beetroot
- orange: pumpkin, carrot
- yellow: turmeric, saffron
- green: matcha, spinach
- brown: cocoa, tea
- black: squid ink
Go for wholesome, unprocessed foods
This is what your diet should mainly consist of – wholesome, unprocessed foods. Fruits, vegetables, grains, herbs and spices. A little bit of meat if you must.
Many treats can be home made. We have made our own ice cream, pasta sauces, cakes, and cookies. Making these at home means we have total control over what goes into the foods. We know there will be zero additives like preservatives, MSG, aspartame, and food dyes.
If you really need a convenient food, for being on the go, or emergency situations which arise and render you not able to prepare some meals from home, then we have this healthy recommendation: Weet-Bix. No additives, minimally processed, just grains pressed together to make a healthy snack.
Other times, just stick to the trees, bushes and the fields, and you won’t go wrong.