Does Your Child Have a Food Dye Sensitivity or Allergy?

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Food dyes are in toothpaste, yogurt, cheese, breakfast cereal, medicines, white (yes, white) frosting, and even the breading on chicken nuggets. They make food prettier! They ensure our food looks exactly the same each time!

Sure, there’s no nutritional value in them, but — like all food additives — they’re safe to eat … legally speaking.

food dye sensitivity

But many people — especially children — have a food dye sensitivity or even a straight-up allergy. People have reported hives, swelling, and even anaphylactic reactions from the following three food dyes:

  • Carmine (sometimes called “natural red 4”) is used to color everything from candy and yogurt to drinks and hamburgers. 
  • FD&C Yellow #5 (sometimes called “tartrazine”) gives the yellow-y color to canned veggies, candy, cheese, ice cream, salad dressings, hot dogs, candy, and even … ketchup? Random. 
  • Annatto is a yellow-orange dye that’s found in cereals, snacks, cheese, and drinks.

Food dye allergies are, luckily, quite rare. People are much more likely to have a food dye sensitivity or intolerance. While an allergic reaction is an immune system response, an intolerance is when your body doesn’t break something down properly and it has a negative effect on your health.

A food dye sensitivity could show up in a lot of different ways …

  • Hyperactivity and constant motion
  • Lack of attention/focus
  • Difficulty sleeping or waking up throughout the night
  • Mood swings, inconsolable crying, or long tantrums
  • Violence or aggression
  • Lack of impulse control, engaging in risky behavior
  • Bed-wetting
  • Stomach aches, headaches, vomiting
  • Eczema or hives
  • Breathing problems/asthma

We’ve all laughed as we commented that our kid is “bouncing off the walls” because they’ve had too much sugar, but sugar might not be the culprit. Scientists have been studying the connection between food coloring and hyperactivity since the ’80s. While there still isn’t conclusive evidence that red dye is to blame for causing ADHD, studies suggest there is definitely an association.

Countless studies have shown that food dye can have “an adverse effect on behavior.” Parents have reported children suffering from wild mood swings, violent temper tantrums, bouts of rage, and an inability to sit still or concentrate. In fact, in the European Union, products containing artificial food dye must carry the warning “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

“It’s like a switch is turned on and she becomes this out-of-control machine,” a Florida parent reported. A New Jersey parent described their normally easygoing child as experiencing “a complete change in personality” with extreme tantrums.

But how do you know if your kid is running around naked and trying to lasso the ceiling fan because of sugar or food dye — since many of the foods they eat contain both? (It’s like the most annoying game of Clue you’ve ever played. “It was Yogurt in the Kitchen with Erythrosine!” “No, it was Fruit Leather in the Den with Plain Old Sugar!”)

Experts say the biggest clue your child has a food dye intolerance is that they CAN eat sugary treats sometimes without a problem. It’s only when they have sugary treats that contain food dye — or sugar-free snacks that contain food dye — that you have a little monster on your hands.

The creator of suggests writing down what your child eats so you can look for patterns. You can also eliminate food coloring for 1-2 weeks and see if you notice a difference in your child’s behavior. 

So let’s get down to the “science-y” part. There are a lot of numbers, but keep reading if you suspect your child might have a food dye sensitivity …

Food dyes come in two forms: “dyes” that are water-soluable and usually in powder form, and “lakes” that aren’t water-soluble and are used in fatty or oily products.

There are seven artificial colorings generally permitted in food in the U.S.:

  • FD&C Blue No. 1 (“Brilliant Blue”)
  • FD&C Blue No. 2 (“Indigotine”)
  • FD&C Green No. 3 (“Fast Green FCF”)
  • FD&C Red No. 3 (“Erythrosine”)
  • FD&C Red No. 40 (“Allura Red AC”)
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5 (“Tartrazine”)
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6 (“Sunset Yellow FCF”)

(Couple of exceptions: Citrus Red 2 is only allowed to color orange peels and Orange B is restricted to hot dogs and sausage casings.)

FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Blue No. 2, FD&C Green No. 3, and FD&C Red No. 40 are all synthetically produced, while colorings like beta-carotene, grape skin extract, caramel color, and saffron come from pigments of vegetables, minerals, or animals

Any product manufactured in the U.S. must specify on the label if it includes artificial dyes, and name them individually. This is important because some people are allergic or sensitive to one specific dye, whereas other people try to avoid ALL dyes.

But Canadian readers, take note: your manufacturers are not required to specify the names of the dyes. They might just write “colour” (Canadian spelling, y’all) and you won’t know if the product contains one dye … or 10.



[ photo credit ]

The biggie that’s NOT allowed in the U.S.? FD&C Red No. 2 (“Allura Red”) because it was believed to cause cancer. But it is still allowed in products in Canada, the European Union, and other nations.

Not only are the dye rules different in various countries, but the ingredients lists on the SAME products can be wildly different. Let’s take M&M candies, for example. The ones made in Europe do not contain synthetic food dyes but the ones made here in the U.S. do contain synthetic food dyes.

Parents have been petitioning Mars Incorporated to stop using artificial dyes in U.S. M&Ms, but in the meantime many U.S. families stock up on something similar during trips to Canada.The Canadian version of M&Ms — candy-coated chocolates called Smarties — have been made with non-artifical colors since 2009.

Luckily, more companies are responding to public pressure by creating naturally-dyed foods using fruit and vegetable extracts. Brands like Annie’s, Nature Valley, and Kashi are producing foods free of artificial dyes. We hope more follow suit!

Heather Laura Clarke, a contributing writer at Scratch or Sniff, lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, with her high-school sweetheart husband, seven-year-old son, and five-year-old daughter. She writes for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S., and blogs about her family life at Heather's Handmade Life. Follow her adventures on Twitter or Instagram.

3 Comments to Does Your Child Have a Food Dye Sensitivity or Allergy?

  1. Shelly Werger

    How do you know where to start? Our adopted 4 year old son was born drug addicted and has some behavior issues. These seem to be progressing and we are wanting to eliminate any other culprits that may be contributing to his aggressive outbursts and inability to deal with emotions. We have a big family and he is a very picky eater so changing his diet isn’t going to be easy. So how do you know what to start with?

    • Thanks for your comment, Shelly. Could you try writing down what your child eats so you can look for patterns? Or eliminating food coloring for 1-2 weeks and see if you notice a difference in your child’s behavior? In the case of our son, we see a huge personality difference when he eats a large quantity of red or blue dyes — usually from candy or a popsicle — but the day-to-day mild dyes in (most) foods are fine.

      • Shelly Werger

        Thanks. We are going to start a food journal and keep track of foods he eats as well as behaviors and see if we notice any trends.

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