Q: Is food coloring toxic?

A: While I have total appreciation for the artistic talent that goes into some of the beautiful sweets on bakery shelves, the nutritionist in me cringes at the thought of mixing acrylic paints into butter cream to get those wild colors.

Ok, I know that isn’t exactly how it’s done, but still. There are plenty of natural food coloring options on the market, but those aren’t the ones we’re talking about here.

A rule of thumb to follow: Nothing in nature comes in electric purple, so you probably shouldn’t put anything that bright between your lips{Tweet this}

But let’s dive deeper.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for testing the safety of food coloring, just like they’re responsible for overseeing all food additives, stabilizers and preservatives.

We use food coloring to make our foods seem more appealing (Coke isn’t really dark brown) and attractive (people prefer Goldfish to sport that signature golden hue). It also protects our food from damage due to light, temperature, storage and moisture.

Since we do a lot of eating with our eyes, appearance matters.

We are biologically programmed to prefer the perfectly red apple that is stereotypically beautiful to the off colored apple. In nature, red means ripe, full of energy and sweet. Pale or mottled apples may be less ripe and delish.

Food manufacturers are hip to this jive, which is why they splash a little yellow food coloring into our cheese and a drop of brown food coloring into our bread. While sometimes there is the side effect of extending the shelf life of the cheese or loaf, you don’t need color in your food.

Should we worry?

I try not to overthink it. All food dyes need to go through FDA testing and then they get the Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) status to hit the shelves.

If a food dye is proven to be damaging, it is removed from the industry, so Red #4, for example will not show up in your eats anymore. You don’t need to memorize the whole list of banned food colorings since the government has taken care of (some of) that for you.

But, hold up. You still need to pay attention to some of the controversial food colors out there on the market.

The FDA has given GRAS status to 9 food colors (and many other ingredients) currently on our shelves, that may not be safe. They are linked to things such as hyperactivity, kidney damage, cancers and tumors in animal studies. Here they are:

  • Blue 1
  • Blue 2
  • Citrus red 2 (these are used on the peels only of oranges/citrus)
  • Green 3
  • Orange B (in the stages of being banned since 1978!)
  • Red 3 (already banned from cosmetics, lakes and drugs)
  • Red 40
  • Yellow 5
  • Yellow 6

We are a long way from taking a page out of the UK’s book and banning questionable artificial food colors, but there are alternatives for you.

Look for vegetable based food coloring when you are making your own treats and scan ingredient lists to see how your food is being colored. Feel empowered when annatto, turmeric and beets are on the list, instead of caramel coloring.

In a perfect world, I’d tell you to bake your own dye-free, beautiful ingredient laden sweets all the time. But as a plan B, selecting something at the patisserie that looks dye-free is close enough.

This eating with your eyes knowledge is powerful stuff, right?! I’m sure the white snowflake sugar cookie will taste just as delish as the one decorated as a red candy cane.

Especially if you close your eyes.

About Nutritious Life Editors

The Nutritious Life Editors are a team of healthy lifestyle enthusiasts who not only subscribe to — and live! — the 8 Pillars of a Nutritious Life, but also have access to some of the savviest thought leaders in the health and wellness space — including our founder and resident dietitian, Keri Glassman. From the hottest trends in wellness to the latest medical science, we stay on top of it all in order to deliver the info YOU need to live your most nutritious life.

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