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Food Dyes and Allergies

Updated: Feb 24, 2020

Artificial colors, preservatives, flavors, and other chemicals have become a significant part of the modern-day food industry.

Food dyes
Artificial colors have become a significant part of the modern-day food industry.

All these chemicals pose a risk to the immune system, cause inflammation, trigger behavioral problems in children and can make allergic and immune reactive disorders worse. Allergic reactions to food chemicals are fairly rare, but they occur.

Why Are Food Dyes Used?

Food dyes were developed to make the appearance of food bright and colorful. They are petroleum-based and their use is highly arguable. The major dyes used in the food and drinks industry are Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, and Blue 2. Various food colorings are often combined to create the right color, making it worse for those who can be sensitive to multiple dyes. Artificial colors are culprits of many behavioral food sensitivities and have no nutritional value.

Food Coloring Used in Food


It is by far one of the most common food dyes in the U.S. It is extracted from either petroleum byproducts or coal tars. It’s been linked to hyperactivity in children and allergic reactions in some people. Some products that contain Red 40 are Fruity Cheerios, Trix Breakfast Cereal, Lucky Charms; M&M’s, Skittles and Strawberry Twizzlers; Full Throttle Red Berry and Powerade Orange; and some barbeque sauces.


Some studies have suggested that Yellow 5 can damage the mucous layer of the rat stomach and possibly cause cancer as well as trigger classic allergic reactions. Tartrazine and Allura Red cause the most allergic reactions of all the food dyes. The most associated symptoms are hives and, in some cases, signs of asthma. Some products that contain a lemon-yellow dye are Doritos, Froot Loops, Starburst, M&M’s, Skittles, Knorr Chicken Bouillon.


Another orange-yellow dye that has been linked with allergies. Some cases of mild hives have been reported, especially among the people with peanut allergies. Sunset Yellow is found in cereals, cheeses, drinks, snack foods, and candies and often found in Mexican American Food.

Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 make up 90% of all food dyes used in the U.S.

Several natural food additives have been implicated in causing anaphylaxis, and reports have become more common as consumer preference for products containing only "natural" ingredients has increased. Over the past decades, food manufacturers have been replacing synthetic food additives with compounds derived from plant, insect, and animal products.

4. CARMINE (E120)

Carmine or cochineal extract, is a red food dye derived from the dried bodies of female Dactylopius coccus Costa insects. Carmine is used in foodstuffs, such as candy, ice cream, yogurt, cookies, pastries, syrups, liqueurs, vinegar, cheese, butter, delicatessen meats, jam, and caviar, as well as in cosmetics. It has been implicated in anaphylaxis as well as occupational asthma.

Adverse Effects of Food Coloring

Among the most common adverse symptoms to food dyes are flushing, headaches, itchy skin, swelling of the face and hives. Severe reactions can include difficulty breathing, dizziness, and low blood pressure.

Allergy Testing

An evaluation for allergy to a food additive involves a detailed and focused clinical history, a physical examination, possibly skin testing with foods or isolated food additives, and possibly a supervised challenge.

In patients with history of repeated anaphylaxis in association with eating that cannot be linked to a food or food additive, differential diagnosis should also include other disorders, such as mast cell activation syndrome.

Skin testing and challenge procedures may be needed to make the diagnosis and should be carried out by an allergy expert because these techniques require training and experience to interpret properly. In addition, allergic reactions during these procedures are possible.

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