March 7, 2023

Is Red Dye 40 Safe?

The color additive found in many pre-packaged foods may affect those with ADHD or allergies

Fresh baked cookies using red dye with white frosting and red sprinkles

Do you notice your kiddo gets hyper after eating a cookie coated with bright red frosting and rainbow sprinkles? It’s natural to assume that sugar is the culprit, but research suggests some of the blame belongs to artificial food dyes like red dye 40.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

So, what is red dye 40? Red dye 40, made from petroleum, is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in foods and drinks.

But some studies have linked artificial food dyes like red dye 40 to hyperactivity, including ADHD.

Some studies show a link between dyes and increased ADHD or hyperactivity in children. And other studies show an improvement in behavior and attention once the dyes were eliminated. Still, more research is needed.

Currently, the U.S. doesn’t ban any artificial food dyes. But some countries say there’s enough evidence to justify banning them.

Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, highlights the possible risks associated with red dye 40 foods and how to minimize them.

Foods that contain red food dye

Red dye 40 is one of the most popular color additives. Foods that come in a package are processed and almost always contain food dyes like red dye 40. It’s best to read the labels to look for red dye 40, which can also be listed as:

  • Red 40.
  • Red 40 Lake.
  • FD&C Red No. 40.
  • FD&C Red No. 40 Aluminum Lake.

It’s important to note that ingredients are listed on food labels by weight.

Foods that commonly include red dye 40 include:

Advertisement
  • Cakes and frosting.
  • Pastries.
  • Cereals.
  • Candy and gum.
  • Yogurt.
  • Puddings.
  • Gelatins.
  • Ice cream.
  • Popsicles.
  • Soda.
  • Sports drinks.
  • Energy drinks.
  • Protein powders.
  • Chips and salty snack foods.

“The key to avoiding dyes is label reading, take note of the foods that you are purchasing that have dye in them and find a healthy alternative,” notes Zumpano. “For example, if your cereal contains food dye, find one that doesn’t, and explain to your family why you made the switch. Teach your family to read labels to avoid food dyes.”

Red dye 40 side effects

It’s hard to determine the exact cause of certain side effects, as red dye is typically used in conjunction with other food additives that may also lead to symptoms.

Potential side effects may include:

  • Hyperactivity, including ADHD.
  • Behavioral changes like irritability and depression.
  • Allergic reaction.
  • Hives and asthma.
  • Sneezing.
  • Watery eyes.
  • Skin irritation.
  • Migraines.

Red dye 40 contains benzene, a known cancer-causing substance.

“Researchers also found tumor growth in animals that consumed high doses of food dyes, though it can be hard to translate what this means for kids,” says Zumpano. “Some studies say the small amount of benzene in the dyes couldn’t pose a high risk.”

But she encourages steering clear of dyes as often as possible to avoid any adverse risks.

How to know if your child has a red dye allergy

You can screen for red dye 40 intolerance at home.

“Try cutting out all foods with red dye 40 for a week or two,” says Zumpano. “Hopefully, you’ll notice an improvement in behavior. But you might not realize how the dye affects your kids until you begin to reintroduce foods and see their reactions.”

Advertisement

It’s important to note that child medications (think liquid cough syrups or chewable tablets) can also contain food dyes, so look for dye-free versions.

Food dye alternatives

Make sure you read nutrition labels and shoot for foods that use natural food coloring from fruit and vegetable extracts. You can also use these red food dye alternatives in your own cooking and baking:

  • Beet juice.
  • Beet powder.
  • Blueberry juice.
  • Pomegranate juice.
  • Beta-carotene.
  • Cranberries.
  • Cherries.
  • Strawberries.
  • Dried hibiscus flowers.

“I recommend minimizing food dyes in your kids’ diets,” reiterates Zumpano. “And if there is a cancer risk in your family, I would encourage you to be even more vigilant in avoiding artificial dyes.”

If you’re concerned about red dye, remember that you have complete control when you make food yourself.

“If you need to bring a dessert into school, consider a chocolate chip cookie or a sugar cookie you won’t need to frost,” she suggests. “If you have to frost something, try making the frosting from scratch and stick to chocolate or cream frosting or choose dyes from natural food sources.”

And Zumpano stresses you should avoid giving your kids processed foods for as long as possible and limit the frequency to only times that it may be difficult to control such as a birthday party or school party. Once these foods have been introduced, it can be hard to get kids off them.

“When you do encounter foods with dyes, talk to your kids about why brightly colored foods may not be the best choice for their bodies,” advises Zumpano. “If your kids go to a party, encourage them to choose apple juice over a sports drink or soda. And always model good behavior when you’re around your kids.”

Related Articles

A closeup of a mix of different kinds of candy, all thrown together.
November 19, 2023
Candy Crush: Why You’re Craving Sweets and How To Stop

Stress, lack of sleep and not eating enough all contribute to sugar hankerings

Closeup of sugar substitute in granulated and pill form on a blue background.
July 17, 2023
Do You Need To Cut Out Aspartame?

Moderation is important for lowering risks

Guarana seeds in the background on a wooden table with a spoonful of powdered gurarana suspended above.
July 16, 2023
No, Your Guarana-Laced Energy Drink Isn’t a Health Food

Guarana seeds may have benefits, but the potential is lost in processing

Lunch tray of processed foods.
March 22, 2023
What Ultra-Processed Foods Are (and Why They’re So Bad for You)

They’ve been altered to include fats, starches, sugars and hydrogenated oils

Peanut Butter balls displayed in white paper cups on a pink tablecloth.
November 30, 2022
Recipe: Peanut Butter Balls

A healthy snack that’s also the perfect mix of nutty and sweet

Bowl of almonds and plate of dried apricots.
August 11, 2022
Quick Snacks To Help Kick Your Sugar Craving

Fuel your body with healthy options that combine fiber-rich carbs, lean protein and healthy fats

Person eats potato chips while watching television in a dark room
June 30, 2021
Late-Night Snacks That Wreck Your Diet (and Sleep)

These foods sabotage weight loss and rob you of rest

recipe sweet and savory trail mix
April 15, 2021
Recipe: Sweet and Savory Heart-Healthy Snack Mix

Whole grains meet dried fruit and nuts for a well-rounded treat

Trending Topics

close up of keto gummies
Do Keto Gummies Work for Weight Loss? Are They Safe?

Research is inconclusive whether or not these supplements are helpful

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

Older person postioned sideways showing dowager hump.
Dowager’s Hump: What It Is and How To Get Rid of It

The hump at the base of your neck may be caused by osteoporosis or poor posture

Ad