The Colorful Truth about Fake Food Dyes

by Brooke Bernard on August 29, 2012

Since sharing my journey about my son’s health issues and how our family discovered the toxic chemicals that actually lurk in the beautifully packaged “food” we eat, my most repeated request from friends and readers is something of a food dye fact sheet – the quick and easy version of why synthetic food dyes are harmful and what to do about it. So, let’s try this (and if you still have questions, let me know in the Comments section so I can keep answering them!).

Here’s the take-away, in case you had a lot of food dye before you sat down to read and now find yourself unable to focus: Synthetic food dye is made from toxic petroleum that is harmful to the brain and body – whether or not the reaction is visible.

Fake food dye is ANY color followed by a number on a label.

Avoid Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, etc.

Read the label every time you make a purchase; manufacturers change ingredients often.

What is synthetic food dye?

Synthetic (fake) food dye is a chemical created from petroleum (think crude oil or coal tar) that makes drinks bright blue and candy neon green. On an ingredient label, it is any color followed by a number: Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5, etc. If your package has any color followed by a number on it, carefully place it back on the store shelf and step away.

Many dyes have been banned in the United States because of their danger, but nine are still in use that raise red flags. Other developed countries require black box warning labels on foods that contain these dyes. As a result, the makers of Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese and even M&Ms create dye-free, natural (safer) versions of their products in other nations and leave the toxins here in American foods.

What is the danger in a little food coloring?

Today, there is no such thing as “a little” food dye, and the argument that “a little bit won’t hurt” simply doesn’t make sense. Research shows that today’s children are exposed to five times as much synthetic food dye as children in 1955.

Synthetic food dye is lurking in not just candy and juices but also in cheeses, “health” drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade, crackers, baked goods (even those “made fresh” at your local chain grocery store), cereal, granola bars, fruit snacks, boxed cake/muffin/cookie mixes, canned frostings, Jello, ice pops, ice cream, French fries, frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, vitamins (Yep. Check your Flintstones at the door!), medicine, shampoos, make up and even toothpaste. You’ll even find blue dye in most white marshmallows. And don’t forget to check that jar of pickles.

Science shows that all this exposure to petroleum-based food dye on a daily basis leads to changes in metabolism, changes in behavior (often tantrums, rage, inability to control emotion, attention deficits, hyperactivity, tics and more), decreases in memory, asthma symptoms and cancers. Some studies show synthetic food dye may even impair students’ handwriting ability!

Many people also report typical allergic reactions to these dyes such as rashes, eczema, headaches and even anaphylaxis.

What to eat instead?

Luckily for our kids and families, consumer concerns are starting to be heard. It’s not as hard today to find food dye-free substitutes as it was even a year ago. The key is you must become a savvy label reader. Even the “natural” brands can sneak in dyes – and snack brands such as Betty Crocker will go out of their way to convince you they are made from real fruit. But you know better! The actual ingredients of one “real” strawberry Fruit Roll Up include Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Blue 1 – four of the most dangerous dyes on the market!

Organic items will not contain synthetic dyes, so that’s a good place to start. If your kids love those little fruit snack gummies as a treat, look for Au’Some brand fruit nuggets – they should be somewhere near the SpongeBob Squarepants dye-filled version.

If you can, make a habit of shopping at markets such as Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, where foods almost never contain petro-based colorants.

For some ideas of what to purchase and what to avoid at Target, click here.
For a birthday bash, make a cake from scratch or use Cherrybrook Kitchen boxed mixes. For lollipops, toss the DumDums and use organic versions such as Yummy Earth (available, oddly, at TJ Maxx) or Trader Joe’s brand. Buy dye-free candy online in advance of special events (such as Halloween and Easter) at: or



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