What Is Red Dye 40?

<p>Arx0nt / Getty Images</p>

Arx0nt / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Mary Choy, PharmD

If you’ve ever had an artificially-colored cereal, candy, or beverage, you’ve likely consumed Red 40, a food dye commonly used to color ultra-processed foods and drinks. Red Dye 40 is currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as safe for consumption.

A handful of studies have linked the synthetic color to health concerns like behavioral disorders and allergic reactions, particularly in children. Animal research also suggests Red Dye 40 could potentially heighten cancer risk.

Food dyes have become increasingly popular over the last few decades. The use of artificial colors is estimated to have increased fivefold between 1950 and 2012.

Here’s what you need to know about Red Dye 40, including where it’s found in the food supply and what the science says about its safety.

Is Red Dye 40 Safe?

According to the FDA, Red Dye 40, which is derived from petroleum, is safe as long as it’s consumed in approved forms, amounts, and products.

The FDA maintains that it has a long history of assessing the safety of color additives used in foods, drugs, and cosmetics—and continually retests them.

Certified food dyes like FD&C Red No. 40, which is a type of Red Dye 40, must be batch-tested for purity and approved before they can be added to foods and beverages that are regulated by the FDA. This means that every batch of certified dye is theoretically vetted before it enters the food supply.

What Does FD&C Mean?

The title FD&C indicates that a certain food dye has been certified for use under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act of 1938 and later amendments.

However, critics argue there are still good reasons to doubt the safety of color additives like Red Dye 40. Here are a few to consider.

It’s Accompanied by a Warning Label in Europe

While Red Dye 40 hasn’t been banned abroad, the ingredient is accompanied by a health warning in the European Union (EU). In the EU, products containing color additives like Red Dye 40 are required to indicate that they “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

The warning is based on research that supports a potential link between food dye exposure and symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, including inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and restlessness. Research conducted on animals has also suggested that even moderate levels of exposure to various color additives can alter the structure of the brain.

Study results haven’t been unanimous and most research has looked at the effects of dye mixtures rather than single ingredients. Therefore, it’s difficult to determine whether Red Dye 40 alone affects children’s behavior.

For now, the FDA states there is not enough evidence to support these potential adverse effects of color additives on children's health. However, they do note that some evidence suggests certain children may be more sensitive to color additives than others.

It May Induce Allergic Reactions

The FDA states that allergic reactions to color additives are possible—but rare.

Research suggests that color additives like Red Dye 40—which is the most commonly used food dye in the United States—can cause allergic reactions like itching, hives, and possibly throat closures in sensitive individuals.

Other food dyes, such as Yellow No. 5, can also cause itching and hives and may be more common allergies than Red 40.

Still, food allergies are not uncommon. Just because an ingredient has the potential to cause an allergic reaction in one person doesn’t make it unsafe for everyone.

A Similar Ingredient Has Been Banned in California

In 2023, the state of California passed a law to ban Red Dye 3, another red food dye, based on concerns about the ingredient’s effects on consumers’ health.

The FDA also banned Red Dye 3 for use in cosmetics and medications in 1990 based on evidence from studies conducted in rats that the dye could pose a risk for cancer. However, the organization still allows for the use of Red Dye 3 in food and beverage products today.

Colon Cancer Risk?

Research conducted in mice has shown that a high-fat diet that contains Red Dye 40 can cause inflammation and bacterial imbalances in the animals' digestive systems, two known risk factors for colon cancer. More research is needed before a clear link between the two can be confirmed.

Side Effects of Red Dye 40

Larger studies and stronger evidence are needed, but current evidence suggests consuming Red Dye 40 may have potential side effects including:

  • Hyperactivity, which can include difficulty sitting still and talking excessively

  • Inattentiveness

  • Allergic reactions, such as hives, itching, and throat closures

Foods Containing Red Dye 40

Red Dye 40 is commonly added to ultra-processed foods and drinks, as well as over-the-counter (OTC) medicines like cough syrup.

Examples of foods and drinks that may contain Red Dye 40 include:

  • Breakfast cereals

  • Beverages, like fruit punches

  • Gelatins and puddings

  • Popsicles and snow cones

  • Ice creams

  • Candies

  • Chewing gums

  • Baked goods, like red velvet cakes

  • Condiments, like maraschino cherries

  • Packaged snacks

Many of the products that contain Red Dye 40 are specifically created for and marketed to children, the group that’s most vulnerable to its adverse health effects.

Higher levels of exposure to artificial colors have also been observed in people from lower-income backgrounds.

How To Identify Red Dye 40

Given its vibrant appearance, it’s not difficult to spot products that have been artificially colored with Red Dye 40.

Many ultra-processed foods that appear bright red contain the additive, though some are naturally colored with juices derived from fruits and vegetables.

To determine whether a product contains Red Dye 40, check the ingredients list on the back of the package. The artificial color may be listed in a few different ways, including:

  • Red dye 40

  • Red 40

  • Red No. 40

  • FD&C Red No. 40

  • FDC Red 40

  • Food Red No. 40

  • Red 40 Lake

  • Red No. 40—Aluminum Lake

  • Allura Red 40

  • Artificial Color

  • Color Added

Alternatives to Red Dye 40

Any food rich in anthocyanins, the antioxidants that give fruits and vegetables their naturally bright colors, can be a great natural alternative to synthetic food dyes if you're cooking or baking at home.

If you’re looking to naturally dye foods at home, consider using these whole foods that can be used as alternatives to Red Dye 40:

  • Berries like blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and cranberries

  • Pomegranate

  • Purple cabbage

  • Cherries

  • Beets

  • Red onion

  • Turmeric (for yellow/orange coloring)

The result may not be quite as bright as the sprinkles at the supermarket but you’ll get a similar effect—and from all-natural sources.

A Quick Review

Red Dye 40 is a food dye commonly used in ultra-processed foods and drinks. Although Red 40 is FDA-approved for consumption, this dye and other color additives have been linked to possible health risks, including behavior and attention disorders like ADHD in children.

Though more research is needed, entities like the state of California and the European Union have already taken steps to remove the ingredient from the food supply. If you are concerned about ingesting Red 40, you can take steps to avoid purchasing products with the dye or create your own food dyes using naturally vivid foods like berries, beets, and dried turmeric.

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