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The Red Dye Diet

By Linda Tarr Kent ; Updated June 13, 2017

Parents who want to help children suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and behavior problems often turn to dietary changes in hopes of seeing improvement. One possible culprit is the red dye used in foods — though the theory that the dye worsens hyperactivity is controversial. People who remove red dye from the diet usually cut other food additives out as well.


No studies show that red dye and other food additives actually cause ADHD, but scientific evidence does point to such additives causing or worsening hyperactive behavior in some people, according to the Mayo Clinic. FD&C Red No. 40, also called allura red, is on the list of suspects. Other additives include FD&C Yellow No. 5, also called tartrazine; FD&C Yellow No. 6, also known as sunset yellow; D&C Yellow No. 10, or quinoline yellow; and sodium benzoate.


Food manufacturers are not required to put FD&C Red No. 40 on food ingredient labels. That makes it tough to tell whether a food has this artificial coloring. If you want to avoid the dye, the best rule of thumb is avoiding brightly colored processed foods. Such items are the likely to contain the red dye or other coloring additives, according to the Mayo Clinic. FD&C Yellow No. 5 is easy to spot, however, because manufacturers are required to inform consumers if this dye is used. This dye is suspected as more likely to cause reactions than other dyes. Some groups, such as the Feingold Association of the United States, which says food additives cause a host of health issues, blame Red 40 for lymphomas and tumors. People who follow the Fenigold diet remove processed foods from their eating plans.

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Some food advocacy groups have petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban food dyes suspected of contributing to hyperactivity in children, including FD&C Red No. 40, reports CBS News. The petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest also asks the agency to require food manufacturers to clearly label foods that contain dyes such as FD&C Red No. 40 during any investigation into whether these should be banned. However, the FDA’s stance is that food dyes are vetted prior to being approved for marketing and are safe, reports CBS News. Food dyes have been vetted since the 1960 Color Additive Amendment was passed by Congress. Of 200 substances used prior to that, 35 dyes have been approved for use following the Act.


Another red dye, FD&C Red No. 2, was removed from use by the FDA in 1976. The dye’s safety could not be demonstrated, and there was concern that it increased risk for cancer based on animal studies, reports "Time" magazine. The dye had provisional approval from the FDA following the Color Additive Amendment, which was rescinded after it was extended 14 times by the FDA. While banned from new products, those on shelves were allowed to remain for sale to consumers because the FDA did not find evidence of a public health hazard from the dye. People would have to consume excessive amounts of foods with the dye — such as 7,500 12-oz sodas daily — to equal the amount given to animals in studies that raised red flags, food manufacturers told "Time." Food advocacy groups at the time disagreed and unsuccessfully called for recalls of foods with Red 2. When Red 2 was banned, manufacturers shifted to using Red 40.


Adults who want to eat a diet based on more natural foods without additives and preservatives also may follow a red dye diet. “The Evolution Diet,” for example, bans such foods and author Joseph Morse specifically advises readers not to consume any type of red dye. Red colorants containing cochineal extract and carmine, made from ground insects, also are under fire from consumer advocacy groups. These appear on food labels as E120 or “color added.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest says Red 40 contains a known carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent, called aniline. Red 40 is the most widely used food dye, according to the center. The advocacy group admits, however, that evidence that the dye accelerates tumor development is controversial.

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