Learn how to identify sneaky sources of food dyes in popular food brands so that you can make an informed choice next time you shop.
Food dyes used in boxed macaroni and cheese, canned frosting, and breakfast cereals probably won't shock you, but would you ever expect to see them in sandwich bread, salad dressing, and microwave popcorn? The truth is, color additives sneak their way into a multitude of products on grocery store shelves these days. Why? They can strengthen the naturally occurring colors of a food, enhance an otherwise colorless food, and help protect color loss from light or storage conditions. Natural dyes derived from vegetables such as beets, carrots and turmeric have been used to enhance foods since ancient times, but synthetic dyes are a relatively recent product. Artificial colors are often used in processed foods because of their ability to provide rich, intense hues at a lower cost than natural colors.
While food dyes in products must be FDA-approved, controversy remains over the safety of synthetic or artificial colors, especially when it comes to children. Take General Mills, who removed artificial colors from their popular cereal Trix in 2016 after growing concern over a link between food dyes and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children. By making the switch to naturally derived ingredients such as turmeric for color, Trix cereal lost its signature neon hue (and apparently its followers). However, the cereal company recently made news headlines after its decision to bring back artificial colors after fans demanded the cereal’s original cosmic look.
Concerned parents are likely to be displeased by General Mills’ move, and it’s a staunch reminder that not all products containing food dyes are as obvious as Trix cereal. While the FDA maintains a full list of natural and artificial food colors approved for use in food, the government agency doesn’t tell you which foods contain what. To avoid purchasing a product with unwanted food dyes, always check the ingredient list first. Additionally if it’s possible to make a certain food from scratch, such as homemade pickles, fresh fruit popsicles, or frosting, do it. We guarantee that it’s the safest way to avoid the most controversial food dyes. Below, we’ve listed 10 unexpected foods that can contain food dyes.
1. Vanilla Ice Cream
Several popular brands such as Edy’s and Breyer’s use annatto, a food dye derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, to color their vanilla ice cream. While reports of symptoms such as allergic reactions and Irritable Bowel Syndrome exist, the FDA regards annatto as safe and more research is needed to confirm its actual effects.
2. Balsamic Vinegar
Not all balsamic vinegars are created equal. In theory, pure balsamic should only contain two ingredients—grape must and red wine vinegar—but the real stuff can be pricey. Some companies cut costs by using sugar, vinegar, and caramel color, a food dye that’s “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. The controversy behind caramel color lies in one type called 4-MEI, which is used to color dark soft drinks and has been linked to potential carcinogens. To make sure you’re buying pure balsamic, look for the word “Tradizionale” on the label.
3. Processed Bread
Even if you see “wheat bread” on the label, don’t automatically assume it’s healthy. Some companies add caramel color to white bread that contains a negligible amount of grains to give it a brown color. Caramel color can also be found in store-bought rye or pumpernickel bread. To avoid caramel color in bread, check the ingredients and look for the Whole Grain Council’s whole grain stamp on foods.
4. Microwave Popcorn
Popular brands such as Orville Redenbacher and Act II add annatto to several varieties of their popcorn to give it a “buttered” hue. Other times, the label may say “color added”, which simply means the dye was derived from a natural source. To avoid popcorn with food dyes, opt for varieties with minimal ingredients or make your own from unpopped kernels.
While artificial dyes Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 are FDA-approved, their use in several brands of store bought pickles can be puzzling for shoppers. Artificial food colors are believed to have a connection to ADHD in children, but more research is needed to confirm the actual link. Regardless, why go for store-bought pickles (which often pack in sodium) when homemade ones are so easy?
6. Bottled Salad Dressing
Some companies may use caramel color in their balsamic dressing to coax out a richer brown color. Creamy French Dressing contains the artificial color Yellow 6 while its Catalina Dressing contains Red 40. Check the ingredients beforehand to ensure your dressing contains no food dyes or make your own from scratch.
7. Chewing Gum
We hate to burst your bubble, but it’s likely that your gum gets its vibrant pink, blue, or green hues from artificial colors. Food dyes in several popular brands may include anything from Yellow 5 or Blue 5 to Beta-Carotene, a reddish-orange food dye naturally derived from carrots.
Be cautious of sugary, fruit-based yogurts—they may use artificial dyes to enhance their colors. Yoplait’s Light Blueberry Patch yogurt uses Blue 1, while their Original Harvest Peach flavor contains annatto.
9. Farm-Raised Salmon
Wild salmon get their reddish hue from the carotenoids in underwater plants and algae, but farmed salmon get their color from a pigment called astaxanthin that’s added to their feed. While research on astaxanthin’s harmful effects is inconclusive, the greater issue with farmed salmon is the environmental effect. Opt for wild Pacific salmon such as Coho and King.
10. Energy Bars
No matter how “healthy” cereal bars, granola bars, or energy bars claim to be, always check the ingredient list. Some bars from popular brands such as Kellogg's or Nutri Grain may contain caramel color or certain fruit-based bars may have synthetic dyes such as Red 40 or Blue 1. Stick to bars with short ingredient lists and minimal sugar or make your own.
While food dyes are a byproduct of the modern food processing system, educating yourself on the signs of where food dye can exist in your products is the best way to avoid overdoing it.