Cereal bowl with white text indicators displaying the food additives used

Add some salad dressing to a plate of leafy greens. Pour some milk on a bowl of cereal. Drizzle syrup on pancakes. Drink a soda or glass of juice. Eat some movie-theater popcorn. Top off a burger with ketchup, mustard or barbecue sauce.

Chances are pretty good you’ve done one or more of these before. Right? In moderate amounts, these foods might seem pretty ordinary.

But they all contain something that could have an impact on your health: (1)

  • Artifical food coloring.

It’s everywhere. Food manufacturers use artifical food coloring to enhances the appearance of food and make it more visually appealing. And it’s used in all kinds of foods like:

  • Cereal
  • Salad dressing
  • Syrup
  • Condiments
  • Candy
  • Drinks
  • Processed meats
  • And many other foods

The most common food colorings include: (2)

  • Blue 1: used in drinks, candy and baked goods
  • Blue 2: used in drinks and candy
  • Citrus red 2: used in some Florida oranges
  • Green 3: used in drinks and candy
  • Orange B: used in processed meats
  • Red 3: used in candy and baked goods
  • Red 40: used in drinks, candy, gelatins, pastries, and processed meats
  • Yellow 5: used in gelatins, candy and baked goods
  • Yellow 6: used in drinks, candy and baked goods

Unless you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet and only eating fresh ingredients, chances are pretty good you’re eating foods that contain artificial food coloring daily.

So what’s the big deal? New research suggests that artificial foods coloring may be linked to several health risks.

Check out these four surprising reaons you may want to avoid or limit artificial food coloring in your diet. Research suggests consuming foods that contain artificial food color may increase the risk for:

  1. Hyperactivity and behavioral issues: One of the most debated health risks linked to artificial food coloring is its potential to trigger hyperactivity and behavioral issues in children. Some research even suggests synthetic food dyes are a contributing factor to the rise in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved many food dyes with guidelines on how it can be used. (3)
  2. Allergic reactions: You could be allergic or sensitive to certain food dies. Allergic reactions to food dye can include: (4)
    • Skin problems
    • Hives
    • Itching
    • Digestive issues
    • Difficulty breathing

    Although these reactions are relatively rare, it’s one reason why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates synthetic food dye.

  3. Certain types of cancer: Some artificial food dyes have raised concerns about causing certain types of cancer. (5) For example, Red 3 (also known as Erythrosine) has been classified as a potential carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). However, in small amounts the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still classifies this as safe:(6) “Color additives are safe when used properly,” says Dr. Linda Katz, director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. “There is no such thing as absolute safety of any substance.” “In the case of a new color additive, the FDA determines if there is ‘a reasonable certainty of no harm’ under the color additive’s proposed conditions of use.”
  4. Migraine headaches: Migraine headaches can be triggered by many different factors like:
    • Stress
    • Sleep patterns
    • Hormone imbalances
    • Weather
    • Light exposure
    • Alcohol consumption
    • And food.

    If you’re prone to migraines, certain artificial food colorings, such as tartrazine (Yellow 5), have been reported as potential triggers for headaches and migraines. “Processed foods with nitrites, nitrates, yellow food dyes, or monosodium glutamate can be especially problematic,” according to Harvard researchers.(7) While artificial food coloring may not pose any immediate health risks, there’s growing evidence that suggests eating more fresh fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods is healthier and safer.


  1. Akintunde, M., et al. (2020). Health effects assessment: Potential neurobehavioral effects of synthetic food dyes in children. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. From: https://oehha.ca.gov/media/downloads/risk-assessment/report/fooddyesassessmentdraft082820.pdf
  2. Centers for Science in the Public Interest. (2022). Artificial colorings (synthetic food dyes). From: https://www.cspinet.org/article/artificial-colorings-synthetic-food-dyes
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2023). Color additives in foods. From: https://www.fda.gov/food/color-additives-information-consumers/color-additives-foods
  4. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. (2020). Allergic to the fine print: Food allergy to additives, rare but real. From: https://www.aaaai.org/tools-for-the-public/conditions-library/allergies/allergic-to-the-fine-print-food-allergy-to-additiv
  5. Mishra, D., (2022). Food colors and associated oxidative stress in chemical carcinogenesis. Handbook of Oxidative Stress in Cancer: Mechanistic Aspects. From: https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-981-15-9411-3_182
  6.  U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2023). How safe are color additives? From: https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/how-safe-are-color-additives
  7. Godman, H. (2023). Top 7 reasons you have a headache. Harvard Health Publishing. From: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/top-7-reasons-you-have-a-headache

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