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You’d expect to find red dye in your kid’s fistful of Swedish fish or that bowl of brightly-colored cold breakfast cereal. But you might not realize that it’s also lurking in the pickle you had for lunch or that chocolate pudding you snacked on before bed.

Red dye is part of a collection of nine artificial food dyes that are approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in foods that humans will consume. Many of these dyes — including red no. 40 — are made from a petroleum base and are being studied for causing health issues. These potential problems include things like reproductive issues, ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), cancer, and allergic reactions. Artificial food dyes are important to consider when buying your next snack.

But if the foods hiding a known carcinogen aren’t obviously colored red, how will you know what to watch out for? Here’s a comprehensive list of food to beware of while shopping. Though it’s not exhaustive, you’ll get a sense of the usual suspects to keep an eye out for.

Foods with Red Dye 40

Candies 

This is probably the most obvious source for allura red, but don’t just read the labels on red candy. Often, red dye is mixed with a yellow dye to create a golden caramel coloring. Other color mixes are created to give candies unusual colors or cheaper dye alternatives to traditional non-synthetic coloring.

Sodas, sports drinks, teas, juices

Sodas and soft drinks are also obvious places where synthetic dyes could be lurking. But you might be surprised to realize that seemingly healthy sports drinks, including electrolyte drinks, protein drinks, and energy drinks, often also contain artificial food dyes.

One place you might not anticipate finding artificial dyes is in fruit juices, such as some varieties of grapefruit juice. It’s also used to enhance the color of some iced tea products.

Packaged snacks

You’ll find red dye in Jello (brand name and generic), gummy fruit snack treats, and chocolate pudding. Yes, you read that right. Without red food dye, the chocolate pudding would be green. The whole pudding snack is full of artificial substances and contains little actual chocolate.

You’ll also find food dyes providing a caramel color in snacks with a peanut butter flavor.

Condiments

Keep an eye on your favorite barbeque sauces and salad dressings. Some food companies add in red food dyes to give their products a more vibrant or golden color.

While you’re at it, watch out for some brands of pickles which contain a mix of food dyes – including red 40 – to give them that unnaturally vibrant yellow-green color.

Dairy Products and Frozen Desserts

Ice cream, popsicles, and other frozen treats are obvious sources of food dyes. But your favorite yogurt might also have some red dye lurking within. Pink-colored dairy products, such as strawberry-flavored milk, can also contain red dye. Just because it seems “healthy” doesn’t mean it’s dye-free.

Breakfast Cereals

Many varieties of your kid’s favorite morning cereal contain an abundance of artificial food coloring. It can be hard to find a brand of cold cereal that doesn’t have dye in it, in fact. 
Recently, General Mills tried to remove artificial dyes and replace them with natural coloring. Consumers complained a lot about the resulting dull colors, however. The company decided to reverse their decision based on the negative feedback, so they added the artificial dyes back in. 

Baking Mixes, Baked Goods, and Pastries

Many food manufacturers include color additives to their baking mixes, as well as in ready-made frosting. As mentioned above, you won’t find red dye only in red products. You’ll also find it in creamy-colored frostings and chocolate-based mixes to help deepen the color.

Red velvet cake mix is a prime candidate for lots of red dyes. Keep an eye out while buying baked goods and pastries, as well. Often the dye is used to deepen colors to make things look more vibrant.

Packaged Fruit Products and Fruit Bars

Fruit seems healthy enough, but often artificial coloring is added in to help maintain or enhance the brightness of the color. Dried fruits and canned fruit salads fall into this category. 
Most prepared cherry products also have plenty of red 40 added in, making them that iconic nearly neon red color. You’ll also find it in fruit bars and toaster pastries, which are sometimes billed as healthy snacks. It’s always a great idea to read the label!

Snack Chips and Products

You might find artificial colors in nacho-flavored tortilla chips. You’ll also likely find it in spicy potato and corn chips, as well as other processed savory chips and snacks that are red or “cheese” colored. It’s often added to enhance the visual effect of something being spicy, so check your favorite snack product before eating. 

Dinner Products

Yes, you might even find food colorants in your dinner foods, including products like Hamburger Helper and Kraft macaroni and cheese. While it’s probably not in the higher quality versions of these types of foods, it’s always a good idea to watch out for it in anything that comes in a box or package. You just never know which supposedly nutritious meal it might be lurking in. 

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Checking labels for red 40 and other food additives

It can be thoroughly disheartening to realize that the U.S. food industry does not have our best interests in mind. However, the silver lining is that with a little knowledge, we can proactively choose food products that are nutritious for our bodies. This starts with reading food labels.

The backside of a food product package might feel a little intimidating, especially if you’re not sure what you’re looking for. You’ll see the nutrition information chart, which is a handy thing to learn how to read and understand. But in this case, you’re looking for a list of ingredients. That is where you’ll discover how much food dye, preservatives, and other food additives a food product contains.

Once you get into the habit, it’s easy to just immediately flip a product over to double-check for additives. You’ll want to avoid foods that contain any kinds of food dyes (look for names like “FD&C Red” or “Yellow 5” or “artificial food coloring”), preservatives like sodium sulfite and sodium benzoate, and other additives such as MSG or annatto.

If you do choose snack products that have food coloring, choose those that are enhanced with natural dyes. Looking for names like beta-carotene, turmeric, and beet juice. Natural food dyes come from real food, so you’ll probably see coloring agents with names that you recognize.

Country Label Differences & General Risks

Labels don’t look the same in every country. The European Union has different requirements of food labels and each European country has its own specific laws that go further. Some countries have banned artificial food dyes altogether.

In general, products that specifically contain red 40 have a warning label on them in the E.U. to warn the consumer that the products might trigger hyperactivity in children. 
The U.S. has different rules and no warning label is required. However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest – a scientific consumer advocacy organization – is working hard to bring awareness to the possible risks of artificial food dye.

These risks include hyperactivity and exacerbating ADHD, allergic reactions such as hives, certain types of cancer, and more. You can read more about their research on dyes in their report Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks

Quality Food for Empowerment, Health, and Well-Being

It can be really frustrating to deal with a food industry that puts profits before people’s health. But you have the ability to take your own health and the health of your family into your hands. Choosing healthy, fresh, whole foods isn’t just a nice thing to do. It’s crucial to building a healthy, disease-free body. It’s also essential to experiencing a sense of well-being throughout your life.
When you choose whole foods, especially those grown locally, you’re voting for a better food industry with your dollars. You’re supporting local farmers. You’re also caring for your body in the best way possible.

It’s okay to eat packaged snack foods once in a while – we all have those busy, rushed days. Just make sure to read the label first to make sure that you’re choosing something without toxins. You’ll thank yourself later!

You have the power to take good care of your body by starting first with what goes into your mouth. Choose high-quality foods for a lifetime of wellness for you and your family!

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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.