Color additives, or food dyes, enhance natural colors and add color to otherwise colorless foods.
They can help identify flavors, create fun decorations, or make food look more appetizing.
Some color additives are sourced from natural materials like plants, minerals, or insects. Other food dyes are synthetically manufactured.
One synthetic additive you might see on food labels is Red Dye #40, made from petroleum. It may also be listed as:
- Red 40
- Red 40 Lake
- FD&C Red No. 40
- Allura Red AC
- CI Food Red 17
- CI 16035
- INS No. 129
Red Dye 40 is the most common food coloring and can be found in juices, soft drinks, frozen desserts (ice cream, sherbet), breakfast cereals, baked goods, gummies, candies, and more. It is also used in some medications and cosmetics.
FDA Recommendations and Average Intake
Under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, all color additives must be approved by the FDA before being used in foods. They evaluate the short and long-term effects of consumption and its composition and properties, manufacturing process, stability, available analytic methods for purity testing, and likely amount of consumption.
FD&C Red No. 40 is one of nine FDA-certified synthetic color additives. These are all required to undergo batch certification, meaning the FDA analyzes a representative sample of each batch to ensure it is what it is supposed to be.
For this Red coloring, the FDA has set the acceptable daily intake at 3.2mg per pound, equating to 480mg per day for a 150-pound person.
In surveys of actual daily intake, even in the highest-exposure demographic category (teenagers), daily exposure rarely exceeds 70mg, or 1.1mg per pound, which is still far below the FDA’s recommended limit. More common averages tend to be closer to 10mg per day, or .2mg per pound.
Possible Sensitivities and Risks
While the FDA and EPA consider Red Dye 40 to be safe and of low concern, consumer advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest have drawn attention to research that indicates possible sensitivities and allergic reactions.
Artificial food colorings, especially in higher amounts, may contribute to children’s hyperactivity, irritability, inattention, and impulsiveness. And restriction diets that eliminate intake of these additives appear to show improvements in cases of ADHD.
Probably Safe But Not Essential
You don’t need to eat foods with Red Dye 40 – it’s not an essential nutrient. Even though this particular ingredient is likely not dangerous, the highly-processed foods it is often found in typically aren’t very good for you.
Ultra-processed foods are associated with increased risk for obesity, type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and cancer.
Often red dye and other food colorings are used to mimic the naturally-occurring vibrant colors of fruits. When you are hungry for a tasty snack, choosing the whole, unprocessed fruit is a much healthier choice than artificially colored.