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Are Artificial Food Dyes Safe?


Health + Wellness

By Becky Bell

Artificial food dyes are responsible for the bright colors of candy, sports drinks and baked goods.

They're even used in certain brands of pickles, smoked salmon and salad dressing, as well as medications.

In short, they're everywhere.

In fact, artificial food dye consumption has increased by 500 percent in the last 50 years and children are the biggest consumers (1, 2, 3).

Claims have been made that artificial dyes cause serious side effects, such as hyperactivity in children, as well as cancer and allergies.

The topic is highly controversial and there are many conflicting opinions about the safety of food dyes. This article separates the fact from fiction.

What Are Food Dyes?

Food dyes are chemical substances that were developed to enhance the appearance of food by giving it artificial color.

People have added colorings to food for centuries, but the first artificial food colorings were created in 1856 from coal tar.

Nowadays, food dyes are made from petroleum.

Over the years, hundreds of artificial food dyes have been developed, but a majority of them have since been found to be toxic. There are only a handful of artificial dyes that are still used in food.

Food manufacturers often prefer artificial food dyes over natural food colorings, such as beta carotene and beet extract, because they produce a more vibrant color.

However, there is quite a bit of controversy regarding the safety of artificial food dyes. All of the artificial dyes that are currently used in food have gone through testing for toxicity in animal studies.

Regulatory agencies, like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), have concluded that the dyes do not pose significant health risks.

Not everyone agrees with that conclusion. Interestingly, some food dyes are deemed safe in one country, but banned from human consumption in another, making it extremely confusing to assess their safety.

Bottom Line: Food dyes are petroleum-derived substances that give color to food. The safety of food dyes is highly controversial.

Dyes That Are Currently Used in Food

The following food dyes are approved for use by both the EFSA and the FDA (4, 5):

  • Red No. 3 (Erythrosine): A cherry-red coloring commonly used in candy, popsicles and cake-decorating gels.
  • Red No. 40 (Allura Red): A dark red dye that is used in sports drinks, candy, condiments and cereals.
  • Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine): A lemon-yellow dye that is found in candy, soft drinks, chips, popcorn and cereals.
  • Yellow No. 6 (Sunset Yellow): An orange-yellow dye that is used in candy, sauces, baked goods and preserved fruits.
  • Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue): A greenish-blue dye used in ice cream, canned peas, packaged soups, popsicles and icings.
  • Blue No. 2 (Indigo Carmine): A royal blue dye found in candy, ice cream, cereal and snacks.

The most popular food dyes are Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. These three make up 90 percent of all the food dye used in the U.S. (3).

A few other dyes are approved in some countries, but banned in others. Green No. 3, also known as Fast Green, is approved by the FDA but banned in Europe.

Quinoline Yellow, Carmoisine and Ponceau are examples of food colorings allowed in the EU but banned in the US.

Bottom Line: There are six artificial food dyes that are approved by both the FDA and the EFSA. Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 are the most common.

Food Dyes May Cause Hyperactivity in Sensitive Children

In 1973, a pediatric allergist claimed that hyperactivity and learning problems in children were caused by artificial food colorings and preservatives in food.

At the time, there was very little science to back up his claim, but many parents adopted his philosophy.

The doctor introduced an elimination diet as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The diet eliminates all artificial food colorings, along with a few other artificial ingredients.

One of the earliest studies, published in 1978, found no changes in children's behavior when they were given a dose of artificial food dyes (6).

Since then, several studies have found a small but significant association between artificial food dyes and hyperactivity in children (1).

One clinical study found that removing artificial food dyes from the diet, along with a preservative called sodium benzoate, significantly reduced hyperactive symptoms (7).

A small study found that 73 percent of children with ADHD showed a decrease in symptoms when artificial food dyes and preservatives were eliminated (8).

Another study found that food dyes, along with sodium benzoate, increased hyperactivity in both 3-year-olds and a group of 8- and 9-year-olds (9).

However, because these study participants received a mixture of ingredients, it is difficult to determine what caused the hyperactivity.

Tartrazine, also known as Yellow 5, has been associated with behavioral changes including irritability, restlessness, depression and difficulty with sleeping (10).

What's more, a 2004 analysis of 15 studies concluded that artificial food dyes do increase hyperactivity in children (11).

Yet it appears that not all children react the same way to food dyes. Researchers at Southampton University found a genetic component that determines how food dyes affect a child (12).

While effects from food dyes have been observed in children with and without ADHD, some children seem much more sensitive to dyes than others (1).

Despite this, both the FDA and the EFSA have stated there is currently not sufficient evidence to conclude that artificial food dyes are unsafe.

Their regulatory agencies work on the premise that a substance is safe until proven harmful. However, there is certainly sufficient evidence to raise some concern.

Interestingly, in 2009 the British government began encouraging food manufacturers to find alternative substances to color food. As of 2010, in the UK a warning is required on the label of any food that contains artificial food dyes.

Bottom Line: Studies suggest there is a small but significant association between artificial food dyes and hyperactivity in children. Some children seem to be more sensitive to dyes than others.

Do Food Dyes Cause Cancer?

The safety of artificial food dyes is highly controversial.

However, the studies that have evaluated the safety of food dyes are long-term animal studies.

Interestingly, studies using Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 found no evidence of cancer-causing effects (13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19).

Nevertheless, other dyes may be more concerning.

Concerns About Blue 2 and Red 3

An animal study on Blue 2 found a statistically significant increase in brain tumors in the high-dose group compared to the control groups, but the researchers concluded there was not enough evidence to determine whether Blue 2 caused the tumors (20).

Other studies on Blue 2 found no adverse effects (21, 22).

Erythrosine, also known as Red 3, is the most controversial dye. Male rats given erythrosine had an increased risk of thyroid tumors (23, 24).

Based on this research, the FDA issued a partial ban on erythrosine in 1990, but later removed the ban. After reviewing the research, they concluded that the thyroid tumors were not directly caused by erythrosine (24, 25, 26, 27).

In the U.S., Red 3 has mostly been replaced by Red 40, but it is still used in Maraschino cherries, candies and popsicles.

Some Dyes May Contain Cancer-Causing Contaminants

While most food dyes did not cause any adverse effects in toxicity studies, there is some concern about possible contaminants in the dyes (28).

Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 may contain contaminants that are known cancer-causing substances. Benzidine, 4-aminobiphenyl and 4-aminoazobenzene are potential carcinogens that have been found in food dyes (3, 29, 30, 31, 32).

These contaminants are allowed in the dyes because they are present in low levels, which are presumed to be safe (3).

More Research is Needed

Artificial food dye consumption is on the rise, especially among children. Consuming too much food dye containing contaminants could pose a health risk.

However, with the exception of Red 3, there is currently no convincing evidence that artificial food dyes cause cancer.

Nevertheless, note that most of the studies evaluating the safety of food dyes were performed decades ago.

Since then, the intake of dyes has dramatically increased and often multiple food dyes are combined in a food, along with other preservatives.

Bottom Line: With the exception of Red 3, there is currently no conclusive evidence that artificial food dyes cause cancer. More research needs to be done based on the increasing consumption of food dyes.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

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The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

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Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

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