Red Dye No. 3, or erythrosine, is making headlines with California looking to ban it along with four other toxic food additives.
Derived from petroleum, the synthetic red dye is responsible for giving many ultra-processed foods and drinks their bright colors and boasts a long list of uses—from candies and sodas to cereals and protein shakes. Several National Institute of Health studies have shown prolonged consumption of the dye to be carcinogenic in lab rats and it is linked to hyperactivity in children and impaired thyroid function.
According to the Environmental Working Group, more than 3,000 food and drink items contain Red Dye No. 3, including many that don’t appear red in color. Products like sprinkles, cookies, frosting, ice cream, toaster pastries, and power bars all contain the dye, along with certain medications like cough syrup, supplements, vitamin gummies, and attention deficit disorder medicine.
Studies have linked Red Dye No. 3 to increased hyperactivity and restlessness in children who consumed just 1mg per day compared to those whose diets did not include the dye. Multiple studies also show that Red Dye No. 3 can cause cancer in animals, citing lab rats that developed thyroid tumors when fed high doses of the dye over long periods.
The International Association of Color Manufacturers maintains that Red Dye No. 3 is safe in the quantities that most people consume, pointing to its widespread use and stating that human studies are more significant than lab rat studies.
In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted the provisional use of Red Dye No. 3 in both foods and cosmetics. In 1969, it allowed for its permanent use in foods but kept its provisional status in cosmetics, pending skin study outcomes. Once science confirmed its link to cancer in rats, the agency the dye from cosmetics in 1990 and stated its intention to eventually remove it from foods, yet never did. Why they’ve yet to remove it may largely boil down to bureaucracy since a permanent designation is essentially equal to approval and therefore challenging to revoke.
“While the FDA recognizes that the regulatory history of Red Dye No. 3 is complex, we can confirm that the FDA has evaluated the safety of Red Dye No. 3 in foods. The FDA monitors new scientific information on the authorized uses of ingredients to ensure that these uses continue to be safe,” Enrico Dinges of the FDA Office of Media Affairs told The Epoch Times.
In October of 2022, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, along with the backing of dozens of scientists, petitioned the FDA to remove Red Dye No. 3 from its list of approved ingredients, citing the Delaney Clause as its basis. Congress passed the clause in 1958 as part of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which prohibits any ingredient known to cause cancer in either humans or animals. The FDA is actively reviewing the petition, stating that it cannot comment on a pending review, but that it will make its response public in the Federal Register once it has completed its analysis.
In fiscal year 2022, Congress appropriated $7 million to the FDA for “emerging chemical and toxicology issues.” Lawmakers then allocated another $1 million in fiscal year 2023 for a total of $8 million in dedicated funding that may prompt the FDA to address Red Dye No. 3 along with other harmful dyes and substances contained in food and beverage products.
The FDA stated that as it identifies new data indicating that use of an ingredient is unsafe, it will take steps to protect consumers, which may include revoking authorizations, working with industries on voluntary market phase-out agreements and recalls, issuing alerts, and informing the public.
For consumers concerned about food dye safety, the FDA requires Red Dye No. 3 to appear on ingredient labels, making it straightforward to spot and avoid. Dyes derived from fruit or vegetable extracts are also available and provide natural food coloring alternatives.
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