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Are You Allergic to Food Dye?



Have you ever had a reaction to a food that you thought was safe? It might have been the color. 

While rare, allergies to food dyes affect approximately 4% of all individuals with allergies, and four dyes in particular are the most common culprits: carmine, tartrazine, annatto, and saffron. 

Fun fact: did you know that carmine red dye is made from ground cochineal bugs?!

Tell me more.

Certifiable color additives are listed in food as either “dyes” or “lakes.”

Dyes dissolve in water and are typically manufactured as granules, powders, and liquids. You can often find them in beverages, baked goods, dry mixes, confections, dairy products, and pet foods, among other products. 

Lakes, on the other hand, are water insoluble and they’re more stable than dyes. They’re used for coloring items containing fats, oils, or moisture-deficient products—e.g., coated tablets, hard candies, chewing gum, cake, or donut mixes. 

What laws can protect us?  

In 1938, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, assigning food color additives numbers (e.g., amaranth was renamed FD&C red #2). The regulation mandated listing color additives in foods, drugs, and cosmetics, and increased government oversight of these colorings.   

By the 1950s, dyes became the focus of controversy because excessive use of certain dyes appeared to be producing illness. In the fall of 1950, many children became ill after eating an orange Halloween candy that contained 1-2% FD&C orange #1, a color additive approved for use in foods. This event, coupled with hearings on its possible carcinogenicity, prompted the FDA to revisit all of the listed color additives. 

In 1960, Congress passed the Color Additives Amendment. This was a federal law that required all dyes and colorants in foods, drugs, and cosmetics to be tested for safety before being used in any item sold. Of the approximate 200 substances used then, very few survived the testing process. Today there are less than 35 dyes approved by the FDA for use in foods, drugs, and cosmetics. Interestingly, it is possible for the FDA to approve a color for one use and not for another (e.g., internal use such as drugs and foods vs. external use such as cosmetics). 

For more information, visit the FDA’s website for an extensive color additives history and make sure to check out their color additive status list

What foods most commonly contain color additives? 

There are certain foods that are more likely than others to contain dyes. Here’s a list to get you started: 

Frozen meat and fish

Some wines/liqueurs

Jam/jelly

Soft drinks/fruit drinks

Hard candy

Condiments

Yogurt

Processed cheese

Ice cream

Cake mixes

Crackers/chips

Canned fruits and vegetables 

Pastries

Cereals

Instant pudding 

Liquid drugs (e.g., antibiotics, Benadryl, etc.) 

Cosmetics and personal care products such as soap, lotion, shampoo, eye shadow, blush, and nail polish typically contain dyes and color additives. Household cleaning supplies often include them as well. 

Symptoms of a dye-related reaction. 

As with any allergic reaction, symptoms can vary widely in presentation and severity. Here are some symptoms you might notice during a reaction to dye: 

Headaches

Itchy skin

Swelling of face or lips

Tightness in the throat 

Hives

Difficulty breathing/wheezing

Tightness in the chest

Dizziness/fainting 

Flushing 

Fast heart beat

Low blood pressure 

How do you diagnose it? 

According to Dr. Jordan Scott, a Boston-based allergist, there are no standardized routine tests available for a dye allergy. “We use a food additives patch panel test and we’ve performed skin pricks with food coloring. There are currently blood tests available for carmine and annatto dye allergies. However, there are no standardized routine tests available to diagnose a dye allergy.”

Some people choose to keep a “food diary” to track everything they ingest and note if a reaction occurs. Others practice an elimination diet, where they avoid certain foods or ingredients for a few weeks to see if symptoms go away. Another option is to perform an oral food challenge under the supervision of your doctor. This is considered the gold standard for food allergy diagnosis. 

Have you experienced an allergic reaction to a color additive? If so, which one? We’d love if you’d share your perspective with our community! 

- Meg & the Allergy Amulet Team 

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