Body, Health & Wellness

Are Food Dyes Bad for You? Potential Health Impacts and Which Products to Avoid

are food dyes bad for you

This article was written by The Zillennial Zine’s spring editorial intern Megan Pavek. Find her on Instagram at @megan.pavek. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial, send us an email at

The health impacts of synthetic food dyes have been debated for over 50 years. Amidst the ongoing controversy, new studies will be released periodically setting watchdog health groups abuzz, trying to spread awareness while simultaneously demanding change. Recently, California has introduced legislation to ban red dye and other additives, Peeps are being called out ahead of Easter, and a petition submitted to the FDA has stirred up fresh interest in this contentious matter. The million-dollar question continues to be: are food dyes bad for you?

What Are Food Dyes?

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According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), food dyes are made with synthetic petroleum-based chemicals and are commonly found in foods of low nutritional value. These foods are typically highly processed and include candy, desserts, and snacks such as Doritos. Think of artificially colored or flavored options that seem too bright or tasty to be natural. CSPI advises that the use of food dyes usually indicates that a natural ingredient is not used. The most common and widely used food dyes in the U.S. are Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. Healthline reports that these three dyes make up 90% of dyes consumed in the U.S. today. 

You’re probably wondering what other food products contain these dyes. Red 40 is found in a number of beverages, sweets, condiments, and cereal. Yellow 5 is found in a majority of artificial fruit-flavored products and candy that rely on its bright yellow hue. Don’t forget the savory snacks such as cheese-flavored Ruffles, Fritos, or Cheetos. Yellow 6 has a different shade that’s deeper and tinged with orange. You’ll be sure to discover it in the ingredient list of sauces, baked goods, preserved fruits, and other similar products.

Potential Negative Health Effects

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The main concern that most have when it comes to food dyes is whether or not they can cause cancer. However, the FDA maintains that these ingredients are safe and can be consumed by the public. Healthline reports that there is currently no conclusive evidence finding artificial food dyes cause cancer. What’s worrisome is that most of the studies conducted and cited in this debate are decades old and more modern research is needed. Additionally, there are concerns that some dyes may contain cancer-causing contaminants. Some known contaminants are currently allowed in dyes because there are very low amounts that have been deemed safe by the FDA. 

Over the years, there has also been growing evidence of a link between synthetic food dyes and neurobehavior problems in children. NBC received a statement from the FDA acknowledging that “some published data suggests certain children with ADHD or other behavioral disorders may have their pre-existing condition exacerbated by exposure to artificial food colors due to a unique intolerance or sensitivity.” The agency places the responsibility on the parent to limit a child’s consumption of food dyes if they are concerned it’s creating a negative health impact. However, many argue this is unfair as artificial products with synthetic food dyes are heavily marketed to children, and many families are completely unaware of the potential side effects.

How to Avoid

So the problem with food dyes is they remain in a gray area, and nothing seems very black or white. If you prefer to air on the side of caution, you may want to consider cutting food dyes out of your diet. The good news is, as mentioned earlier, food dyes are mostly found in junk foods. Chances are if you already avoid highly-processed foods or sugar, you probably aren’t consuming much food dye to begin with. However, some foods such as balsamic vinegar, certain brands of bread, popcorn, and even yogurt can have hidden synthetic dyes in them that are not completely obvious to shoppers. Here’s a full list of unexpected places you might find food dye.

Don’t feel deterred! Shopping food dye-free can be easy at grocery stores like Aldi or Trader Joe’s as many of their products do not rely on these ingredients. When in doubt, be diligent about checking your food labels and read up on the different types of dyes and their possible effects.

What are your thoughts on the controversial synthetic food dye debate? Let us know in the comments below!

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