Sunday, September 24, 2023

How Synthetic Food Colours Harm Your Child’s Health

Food dyes can cause ADHD and allergies, though their cancer linkage is tenuous.

Food colours are added to foods to make them more attractive. Children are even more susceptible to such allurement. Many of their brightly-coloured candies, munchies, baked foods, sports drinks, and medicines have added food colours.

Usually, there is no need to colour home-cooked foods.

In readymade and store-bought foods, the use of added colour has exploded in the last few decades. Along with such increases come potential risks. This article discusses what harm you may expect for your child and what to do to avoid that.

As a parent, there are just about ten food dyes that you need to pay attention to, as they cover almost all food colouring. However, if you are busy to even learn that (given in the article below), just proceed to the summary.

Food Colours

Food colours are of two types: natural and artificial.

Natural Food Colours

Natural, colourful food items can be added to foods, such as:

  • Yellow: Turmeric or saffron
  • Red: Beets, red chilli, or tomato
  • Orange: Carrots (beta carotenes)
  • Pink: Strawberries or raspberries
  • Brown: Cocoa or chocolate, coffee, and tea
  • Purple: Blueberries
  • Green: Green chilli or spinach

Interestingly, if natural colours are added to any food, the packet will say ‘artificial colours’ or ‘colours added’. The rule for labelling the food packets is to list the individual names of the added colours if they are synthetic. But the colours are natural, you have to say ‘artificial’ colours!

Natural colours bring their own flavour to the dish—chilli makes it spicy and strawberries tart. So people use artificial food colours that don’t have their own taste or fragrance.

Similarly, synthetic colours are cheaper and give a more consistent colour. Natural colours come from plants. So they are less bright and vary widely, properties less desirable in commercial foods.

Artificial Food Colours

Here is a list of commonly used food colours. I am giving their myriad names so that if they are mentioned on a food packet, you know what it contains.

  1. Tartrazine: Also called Yellow 5, E102, Acid Yellow 23, or Food Yellow 4. It is yellow and used to colour ice cream, soft drinks, popcorn, potato chips, hard candies, and chocolates.
  2. Sunset Yellow FCF: Also called Yellow 6, E110, or Orange Yellow S. It is orange and used in biscuits, candies, sauces, and baked foods.
  3. Erythrosine: Also called Red 3, or E127. It is a pink shade and is used for cakes and candies.
  4. Allura Red AC: Also called Red 40 or E129. It is red and used in cotton candies, soft drinks, sports drinks, and flavour enhancers.
  5. Brilliant Blue: Also called Blue 1, E133, or Acid Blue 9. It is blue and used in processed foods, medicines, dietary supplements, and ice cream.
  6. Indigo Carmine: Also called Blue 2 or E132. It is blue-purple and used in ice cream, candies, and dyeing medicine capsules.

Which of these foods are consumed by your child?

Food Colour Testing

The food colours are tested by various government agencies around the world. However, by design, that research cannot be very comprehensive and will take time to unravel its secrets. Think about it:

  • Which research group or parent will knowingly allow a child to be fed artificial colours for a long time to test its harmful effects? The studies will have to be in laboratories or on animals, which may tell you about liver damage or tumours but behavioural issues such as slower learning or hyperactivity of a rodent will have harder to quantify.
  • One way out is to broadly check for safety and allow the dye use but monitor the problems that develop over the years of use. However, artificial food colours have no nutritional value. So they are added only to attract and increase consumption. To that effect, such foods also contain added sugars, salts, preservatives and other flavour enhancers. So to separate the effect of synthetic dyes from other additives in a food item is hard, even if you notice a problem.
  • The regulatory agencies, such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), say that synthetic dyes approved by them do not pose significant health risks.

Food Colour Approvals

The six colours mentioned above are approved by both EFSA and the USFDA.

But a turquoise colour called Fast Green FCF, Green 3, Food Green 3, Solid Green FCF, or E143—used in cakes, frozen treats, drink mixers, dietary supplements, and breakfast cereals—is banned in the European Union while approved in the USA.

On the other hand, these three colours are banned in the USA while approved in the EU:

  • Quinoline Yellow WS or E104—used in sauces, decorations, coatings, and alcoholic beverages;
  • Ponceau 4R, Cochineal Red A, Acid Red 18, or E124—used in cheeses, meats, confectionery, desserts, and sauces;
  • Carmoisine, Red 10, or E122—used in cheeses, dried fruits and alcoholic beverages.

If you are confused with these, don’t be. Here is how I interpret it:

Don’t take any approval by any agency as an iron-clad proof of safety.

Harmful Effects of Food Colours

Food Colours and Hyperactivity (ADHD)

  • Various studies have shown a linkage between certain food dyes and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) in children.
  • Also, weaning children off foods containing such dyes have shown to improve the symptoms.

As per NHS, UK, these are the colours that are found to increase ADHD symptoms:

  • Tartrazine (E102)
  • Quinoline Yellow (E104);
  • Sunset Yellow FCF (E110)
  • Carmoisine (E122);
  • Ponceau 4R (E124); and
  • Allura Red (E129).

All of these are mentioned above, along with typical foods in which you find them. So stay alert, especially if your child is showing ADHD symptoms.

Food Colours and Allergies

The following are the colours found to cause allergies in some adults:

  • Tartrazine (E102);
  • Allura Red (E129); and
  • Sunset Yellow FCF (E110).

It has not known if they cause allergies even in children. But usually, children are more susceptible to allergies than adults due to their weaker immune systems. If your child is showing allergy symptoms, be on guard.

Food Colours and Cancers

It is unlikely that food colours will get away with approvals if they cause any cancerous tumours. However, there are at least two food colours that are not fully absolved of cancer controversy:

  • Erythrosine (E127); and
  • Indigo Carmine (E132).


  • The evidence against food colours in children is the strongest against ADHD, followed by allergies. If your child shows either of these, completely avoid such foods from the child’s, and preferably, the family’s diet.
  • The links to cancer are the weakest. Leave that worry to the regulators and researchers.
  • If you are a parent:
    • Learn to read food labels, especially spotting dye ingredients;
    • Avoid giving your child outside foods with vivid, unnatural-looking colours;
    • Strictly avoid unbranded street food for kids, especially if it looks colourfully alluring; and
    • Do not give your child processed foods that are high in synthetic dyes, as a reward for good behaviour. Bad things cannot be a prize for good conduct.

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First Published on: 11th June 2023
Image credit: Image by Freepik


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