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If you reach for a red popsicle when it’s hot and barbeque sauce-slathered chicken wings when it’s not, you might be ingesting artificial food dye in the form of red dye 40. This seemingly harmless food dye is found everywhere in our everyday products, from kids’ treats to adult medicines.

Even though the FDA allows this petroleum-based substance to be added to foods, there are some things you should consider. Kids and adults alike report physical irritations to red 40 and other dyes all the way to full-blown allergic reactions.

Wondering if you might fall into either category? We’ve compiled the best information available on red 40 and allergies.

Red Dye allergy symptoms

Allergies are reactions caused by the body’s immune system. Outside substances are seen as foreign invaders, so the body reacts in defense causing inflammation.
Since everyone has a unique body, food allergies can manifest in many different ways. Some symptoms are pretty common among those with adverse reactions. But don’t discount a symptom that is suspicious simply because it’s not on this list.

Some symptoms can be mild and easily ignored. Others can be life-threatening. Always check with your health care practitioner if you’re concerned about a symptom or potential allergen you’re worried about. And, of course, if you’re experiencing a serious reaction, head to the nearest emergency room for help!

Here are a few of the most commonly reported symptoms that people who are allergic to red dye experience.

Skin Reactions

  • Itchy skin
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Hives
  • Rash
  • Boils

Gastrointestinal Problems

  • Stomach ache
  • Bloating
  • Gassiness
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

Respiratory Issues

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Throat swelling
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Itchiness in throat and sinuses
  • Sneezing

Anaphylaxis

If a dye allergy reaches a critical level, it can cause anaphylactic shock. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include many of the symptoms above, worsening quickly. It then also includes severe symptoms such as…

  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Increased pulse rate
  • Dizziness
  • Blocked airways
  • Whole-body swelling
  • Fainting

If not treated quickly with an EpiPen, a visit to the emergency room, and drug administration, anaphylactic reactions can cause death. 

Red Dye and ADHD

One symptom of intolerance or food allergy to red food dye is increased hyperactivity in children. Studies show that some children react to red 40 by behaving in ways common to children diagnosed with ADHD. This applies to both children who have ADHD and those who do not.

While studies looking at the connection between artificial food coloring and hyperactivity have been imperfect, the consensus is that there is a reason to believe that red 40 can create this issue in many children. The mechanism isn’t well understood, but it’s clear that one of the allergic responses that come from eating foods that contain red dye is a hyperactive behavior reaction.

If your child eats a candy cane and then acts weird, that could be your first clue that they struggle with this dye intolerance. While it most commonly impacts children, adults with dye sensitivity also report symptoms of restlessness, irritation, and other symptoms similar to hyperactivity.

Sources of Red Dyes

Artificial colors are hidden in all kinds of food products, cosmetics, and body care products. You’ll find it in nearly all candy, which is where most children encounter it on a regular basis. 
It’s also in food products such as…

  • Chocolate pudding
  • Barbeque sauce
  • Ice cream
  • Sodas
  • Hot dogs
  • Sports drinks
  • Salad dressings
  • Yogurts
  • Bakery goods
  • Fruit snacks
  • And many other unsuspecting places. 

You’ll also want to watch out for lotions, shampoos, and conditioners, as well as over-the-counter and prescription medicines. Makeup products also often contain red 40, including foundation, lipstick, and eyeshadow.

Be sure to read the list of ingredients in all products to ensure that you’re not ingesting or covering your skin with this potential allergen.
woman holding a phone looking healthy

Other Problematic Food Additives

While red dye is a very common cause of food intolerances and allergies, it’s not the only culprit. Other petroleum-based dyes also can cause reactions in those who are sensitive, as well as other food additives and preservatives. Research groups and activists have been  concerned about these dyes, calling for them to be replaced with more natural dye sources.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a scientific consumer advocacy group based in the United States, has studied these dyes extensively, helping to bring awareness to the health risks and issues that these substances cause in many people. You can read more about their food dye concerns in their report Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks.

You can look at food labels to identify these common suspects and choose to avoid them for better health and reduction of allergy risk. Here are the typical names you might come across for problematic food dyes, in addition to the common names for red food dye.

Other Potentially Allergenic Food Dyes

  • Yellow 5 (Tartrazine)
  • Carmine (Cochineal extract)
  • Annatto
  • Yellow 6 (FD&C Yellow 6, Sunset yellow)
  • Blue 1

While you’re at it, you might want to also watch out for other food preservatives and flavor enhancers that are known allergens, such as MSG (monosodium glutamate), sulfites, and benzoates. Keep an eye on that food label and avoid foods that contain suspicious ingredients that might be causing health issues. 

Allergy Testing

Food dye allergies are different than your typical assortment of allergies. If you go to your doctor to get tested for an allergy, he or she will usually run a blood test or a skin prick test. You’ll get a “yes” or “no” right away. But this won’t work for a food dye allergy as it is more of a food intolerance than a true allergy.

Instead, you’ll need to keep a food diary to help track your food intake and physical reactions. You can also do a food challenge where a doctor has you eat specific foods to help determine how your body reacts. Another option is to undertake a food elimination diet, removing allergy-prone foods and then eating foods that contain allura red (red 40) to see how your body reacts.

You may need to work with an allergist throughout the process, as they are doctors who specialize in diagnosing tricky allergies.

In addition to watching out for problematic foods, you might want to keep antihistamines on hand just in case an accidental brush with an allergen gets out of control. It could help save a life!

Be Empowered in Your Wellness

While food allergies can be a frustrating part of life, they can also help us slow down, tune in, and dig deeper into our wellness practices. Having an allergy is an invitation to pay closer attention to our bodies and what we need to be healthy. Yes, it’s important to avoid foods you’re allergic to. But it’s also just as important to avoid food products that are full of toxic substances.

Food dyes that come from petroleum bases aren’t great for our bodies and it’s best to avoid them as much as possible. Choose instead to eat whole, dye-free foods or at least avoid foods with toxic food additives, such as artificial dyes and preservatives. Choose snacks with natural food colorings that come from fruits and vegetables.

You have the power to transform your health and wellness by choosing practices that nourish and sustain your body. Encourage your friends, family, and community to also take better care of themselves. The food industry may not always have your best interest in mind, but you can change it by voting with your money. Buy healthy foods from local sources and farmers’ markets. You can be the change-maker in your community!

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Suzanne Monroe Founder of IAWP

About the Author

Suzanne Monroe

Suzanne Monroe is the author of The Holistic Cookbook & Lifestyle Guide: 12 Weeks to a Healthier, Happier You, the co-author of 101 Ways to Improve Your Health, and is a health and business expert appearing regularly in the media. Suzanne was inspired to create the IAWP Wellness Coach Training & Certification Program in collaboration with other leading health experts in order to inspire people to create meaningful careers and spread the message of wellness.