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Is Red Dye Safe to Eat?

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red dye 40

Check out the PedsDocTalk YouTube Video: Red Food Dye Concerns Fact Vs. Fiction for more information including what is red dye, other names, can red dye cause ADHD, can you be allergic, can red dye cause cancer, and how much can be safely consumed.

There are so many colorful foods and drinks out there – red popsicles, flavored drinks, and fruit snacks. Artificial food dyes can be hard to avoid with how often they are used in foods and beverages. Concerns have been raised specifically about red dye. Is red dye consumption something worth worrying about?

What is red dye?

The concerns circulating red dye are typically related to red dye 40, a commonly used synthetic food dye made from petroleum. Red dye 40 is one of the nine certified color additives approved by the FDA to be used in foods and beverages. Color additives add color to foods and are often preferred to natural dyes due to their low cost, stability over time, and consistent color.

Does red dye have other names?

When looking for red dye on a food label, it’s helpful to know the other names it may be listed as. These include Red 40, Red 40 lake, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Red No. 40 Aluminum Lake, Allura Red AC, CI Food Red 17, INS No. 129, and E129.

It’s one of the most widely used color additives and can be found in flavored milk, yogurt, ice cream, popsicles, cakes, pastries, candies, breakfast cereals and bars, Jell-O, fruit snacks, soda, and sports drinks.

Can red dye cause ADHD?

There has been concern circulating that red dye can cause ADHD or worsen ADHD symptoms. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that can present with trouble focusing, fidgeting, impulsivity, and forgetfulness. There is a strong genetic predisposition, and it cannot be “caused” by something you eat. ADHD is how our brain works, and foods don’t cause ADHD. 

There have been some studies that show that certain individuals with ADHD can be more sensitive to red dye, and consumption of red dye can increase their hyperactivity symptoms. These studies showed that their increase in symptoms after consumption was mild but still statistically significant. Other studies have shown no correlation between consumption and symptoms, so the evidence is inconsistent.

In comparison, there have been many, many studies that show that medication, specifically stimulants and, most importantly, behavior therapy, are very effective at reducing symptoms of ADHD.

When we have conflicting research – meaning, some studies say it can worsen ADHD symptoms, and some say there is no effect I think it’s important to speak to your child’s ADHD expert and look at your child and what you feel.

Does your child need foods with red dye? No, nobody needs food with red dye. But if your child tolerates these foods in moderation and you are not seeing any change in behavior, then you, as a parent, can decide how to proceed.

Most kids can consume foods with red dye and not be affected, but if you notice your child who has ADHD is consistently more hyperactive after consuming foods with red dye, it may be beneficial to try having them avoid red food dye consumption and monitor for symptom improvement.

Can you be allergic to red dye?

What about allergies? Can you be allergic to red dye? And if so, what would a reaction look like? Allergic reactions have been reported to both synthetic and natural food colors. If an allergy occurs, reactions tend to be rare, mild and mainly involve the skin (typically presenting with hives). Sometimes it can be confusing if you’re allergic to the dye or something else since food dye is often in foods with other additives. If you are consistently breaking out in hives after eating foods with red dye, that’s likely the culprit. This means foods and drinks with red dye should be avoided in the future. If it’s hard to pinpoint what is causing your allergic response, I’d recommend seeing an allergist for further evaluation.

Can red dye cause cancer?

Let’s pivot to a different red dye, called red 3 or erythrosine. Its use is controversial due to concerns about cancer. Although studies have shown no clear evidence that red dye causes cancer, it’s important to note that studies on human food dye consumption are difficult to do well. In the past, combinations of food dyes have often been studied together making it difficult to determine if one in particular is causing certain effects. Also, many studies have been limited in their ability to monitor long-term effects. That being said, with all the evidence we have today, the FDA still deems red food dye to be safe for consumption and further studies are ongoing.

Watch this PedsDocTalk YouTube video for more details on the history and research on red dye.

So, is there a safe amount to intake?

Despite all of the circulating concerns, with all the evidence at hand, the FDA and World Health Organization have deemed red dye to be safe for consumption. 

They have placed an acceptable daily intake of 3.2 mg per pound (7 mg per kg). 

One study showed that children aged 2-5 had the highest average daily intake of red dye 40 at 0.09 mg per pound of body weight. That’s 35 times less than the recommended limit. This shows that you are very unlikely to consume enough red dye to go over the set daily limit. As long as you’re not consuming bottles of Gatorade, bags of gummy snacks, and cartons of flavored milk in one sitting, you’re unlikely to exceed that approved limit.

In summary, the evidence supports that small amounts of red dye are unlikely to affect overall health. When consumed in moderation, red dye has not been linked to cancer, and although certain individuals with ADHD may see mild symptom improvement with eliminating red food, red food dye does not cause ADHD, and other strategies are much more likely to help manage symptoms, specifically medication and behavioral therapy.

Remember, if your child does have ADHD, treat this like how I approach lactose intolerance. Some people cannot have dairy products or maybe perhaps a certain quantity of dairy product because it makes their stomach hurt or makes them uneasy. Regardless of where they have this milk, either at parties or at home, they are impacted. If you feel that your child has foods with red food dye in various locations and you see an exacerbation of symptoms, such as at school, home, or parties – you can absolutely decide to limit these products based on the correlation you’re seeing. This decision is yours based on your child and what they will eat.

Watch the PedsDocTalk YouTube Video HERE!

P.S. Stay up to date on the latest news on all things child health and parenting with the PedsDocTalk newsletter!

Dr. Mona Admin

Hi there!

I’m a Board Certified Pediatrician, IBCLC, and a mom of two.

I know the ups and downs of becoming a mom and raising kids.

I help moms ditch the worry and second-guessing so you can find more joy in motherhood.


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