Why Foods With Artificial Dyes Should Have Warning Labels

Some U.S. states may soon require warning labels on products containing certain food dyes. Should Canada do the same?

That artificial food dyes are unhealthy is not news. Some of the most common ones—used to colour everything from M&M’s to soup—are known to cause hyperactivity in some children, affecting their ability to learn. But regulatory agencies around the world don’t necessarily agree on which ones are a problem and why.

That may soon change, thanks to increasing consumer pressure and comprehensive 2021 peer-reviewed report prepared by the State of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), which concluded that synthetic food dyes “cause or exacerbate neurobehavioural problems in some children” and that the current levels deemed safe by the federal government are too high.

In response to the report and a subsequent petition signed by children’s advocates, consumer-advocacy groups and health and environmental experts, California is now considering requiring warning labels on food products and supplements containing the seven most commonly used synthetic dyes. Among them are Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 (known in Canada as Allura Red, tartrazine and Sunset Yellow FCF, respectively), which account for more than 90 percent of food dye certified for use in the United States. Restaurants in California would also have to identify menu items containing the additives.

What makes the OEHHA report a game changer is that a regulatory agency is on the same page as scientists and advocacy groups. That’s largely due to the quality of the report, says Lisa Lefferts, an environmental-health consultant and one of 10 original signatories to the petition. “It’s quite simply the best, most comprehensive, most rigorous assessment on the neurobehavioural effects of synthetic food dyes in children that has ever been done.”

Food dye warning labels in Canada

The warning-label requirement would put California on par with the European Union, which since 2010 has required food and beverage products containing certain synthetic food dyes to carry warning labels about their adverse effect on activity and attention in kids.

But there is currently no such move afoot in Canada. Marie-Pier Burelle, media-relations advisor at Health Canada, told Reader’s Digest, “Based on available scientific data, it is the opinion of Health Canada that synthetic food-colouring agents do not pose a health risk to the general population when used according to their permitted uses set out in the Lists of Permitted Food Additives.” Since 2016, Health Canada has required food labels to list individual food-dye colours so consumers can make informed choices, should they choose to avoid these additives.

Ultimately, synthetic dyes are used in foods for one reason: to make products look prettier. Bill Jeffery, executive director of the Ottawa-based Centre for Health and Science Law, likens the practice to “putting cosmetics on food.”

Bright colours and fun shapes make candies and cereals appealing, especially to kids. But dyes are also in some applesauce products, marshmallows, cake mixes, salad dressings and more.

As research emerges, consumer pressure has led companies to reformulate products sold on both sides of the border, most notably the iconic Kraft Dinner. In 2016, the company began using turmeric, annatto and paprika instead of tartrazine (Yellow 5) and Sunset Yellow FCF (Yellow 6). Around the same time, Chipotle eateries, Nestlé USA and some other restaurants and manufacturers announced plans to cut back on or stop using synthetic dyes.

In Europe, it was the 2010 label legislation that triggered companies to reformulate. “Companies do not want to put a warning label on their product,” says Lefferts, explaining that many food manufacturers would rather change their ingredients than use dyes that trigger a label requirement.

That’s why Starburst Fruit Chews sold in Europe are coloured with natural products, not the dyes that make their North American counterparts potentially harmful. Allura Red (Red 40), for instance, was found to exacerbate colitis in mice in a 2022 study at McMaster University in Hamilton.

More research is needed, but given that artificial food dyes are ultimately superfluous, experts agree we’re better off without them.

After all, points out Joe Schwarcz, a chemistry professor and director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal, we don’t dye fresh fruits and vegetables, but we do dye candy, donuts and sprinkles. “The foods in which you find dyes are nutritional paupers,” he says. “If you limit foods that contain them, you automatically improve your diet.”

Next, check out our ultimate guide to healthy grocery shopping.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada