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Food Coloring Facts

How many food colorings do your kids eat?


We love brightly-colored foods, but what is the difference between the color in a bright red apple or the deep red frosting on a cupcake?

Have you ever wondered how food manufacturers add colors to food such as yellow margarine, green mint-flavored ice cream, or blue yogurt?

The FDA has a long list of approved color additives:

  • FD&C Blue No. 1 and No. 2

  • FD&C Green No. 3

  • FD&C Red No. 3 and No. 40

  • FD&C Yellow No. 5 (also known as tartrazine) and No. 6

  • Orange B

  • Citrus Red No. 2

  • Annatto extract

  • Beta-carotene

  • Grape skin extract

  • Cochineal extract or carmine

  • Paprika oleoresin

  • Caramel color

  • Fruit and vegetable juices

  • Saffron

A color additive is any dye, pigment, or substance that adds color to foods. Color additives are used to offset discoloring when food is exposed to light, air, or temperature extremes; correct natural color variations, enhance naturally-occurring colors, and add color to foods that are naturally white or colorless. Color additives have no health or nutritional benefits. Some color additives are made from plant extracts, while others are made synthetically in the factory. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating all food color additives for health, safety, and accurate labeling.

Are Color Additives Safe?

The FDA has the primary legal responsibility for determining the safety of color additives and considers both the amount that’s typically consumed as well as immediate and long-term health effects. When determining an appropriate amount of color additives to use, the FDA includes a built-in safety margin so that the levels of use that are approved are much lower than what would be expected to have any adverse effect.

Growing Safety Concerns

There’s a growing concern among parents about the possible negative effects of synthetic color additives on our children.

There is research on both sides of the color additive safety debate, with some research showing that even people who consume a high number of foods with color additives are not at risk of any adverse health effects. Other research points to the possibility that color additives may be carcinogenic or could cause hypersensitivity reactions or behavior problems. A 2012 meta-analysis of 36 studies found that 8% of children with ADHD had improved behavior when they ate a diet that contained no color additives. FD&C Yellow No. 5 is used to color beverages, dessert powders, candy, ice cream, custards, and other foods. The FDA's Committee on Hypersensitivity to Food Constituents concluded in 1986 that FD&C Yellow No. 5 might cause hives in fewer than one out of 10,000 people, and that there was no evidence the color additives in food provoke asthma attacks. The law now requires Yellow No. 5 to be identified on the ingredient line so that people who may be sensitive to the color can avoid it.

Our Take:

Since primarily processed foods contain color additives, you can remove these foods from your daily food choices and replace them with less processed, naturally-colored foods. Color additives add no nutrition or health value to foods, and primarily are found in foods that are high in sugar, sodium, and calories, which can be detrimental to health. Instead of consuming brightly-colored processed foods, opt for plain yogurt and flavor it with fresh or frozen fruit. You can also serve fresh fruit instead of fruit-flavored snacks or candy, and enjoy water instead of flavored beverages.

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT, CHWC


  1. International Food Information Council Foundation. Food Colors: Resources You Can Use. Assessed 3-20-18; last updated 2-28-18.

  2. International Food Information Council Foundation. Food Ingredients & Colors. Assessed 3-20-18.

  3. International Food Information Council Foundation. Sound Science: New Studies on Food Coloring Safety. Tamika Sims, PhD. Assessed 3-21-18, published August 30, 2017, updated November 15, 2017.

  4. Micchalina Oplatowska-Stachowiak and Christopher T. Elliott. Food Colors: Existing and Emerging Food Safety Concerns. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 57:3, 524-548, DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2014.889652

  5. Batada A, Jacobson MF. Prevalence of Artificial Food Colors in Grocery Store Products Marketed to Children. Clin Pediatr (Phila). 2016 Oct;55(12):1113-9. doi: 10.1177/0009922816651621. Epub 2016 Jun 6.

  6. Potera C. DIET AND NUTRITION: The Artificial Food Dye Blues. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2010;118(10):A428.

  7. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Seeing Red: Time for Action on Food Dyes. Assessed 3-21-18, published 1-19-16

  8. Nigg JT, Lewis K, Edinger T, et al. Meta-analysis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012; 51(1): 86-97.e8. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2011.10.015.

Want to learn more? Contact our Health & Wellness Team at 724-841-0980 x 110. Our goal is your goal of better health.

Copyright, reprinted with permission"

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