Soda in a glass

9 min read

Health Facts on Sugary Soda: The Truth about Artificial Dyes

If you pick up a Mountain Dew in the U.K, you'll discover that it gets its bright coloring from beta carotene, a natural color derived from carrots and other plants. On the other hand, if you pick up a Mountain Dew in the United States, you'll discover that it gets its bright coloring from Yellow #5, an artificial color derived from petroleum[1]. Curious about how that is possible? Here's everything you need to know about artificial dyes and soda.

What are artificial dyes?

A food coloring or color additive refers to any dye, pigment, or substance that imparts color when added to food or drink. Found in many forms, dyes can be liquids, powders, gels, and pastes. Used in commercial food production and domestic cooking, food colorings are either natural, artificial or caramels[2]. In ancient times, naturally occurring color additives were most commonly paprika, turmeric, saffron, iron and lead oxides and used to color foods, drugs and cosmetics[3].


William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic organic dye, mauve, in 1856. Following his discovery, similar dyes were quickly found and used to color foods, drugs and cosmetics. Because these dyes were first produced from coal processing, they were known as coal tar colors[3].


While natural coloring is preferable in soda, the colorings are mostly artificial. Instead of coal tar, today’s dyes are derived from petroleum because they are cheaper, more stable and brighter than most natural dyes[4].


Dyes are not permitted to be utilized unless the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tested and certified the dye meets particular legal specifications. Since 1955, dyes have dramatically increased, which indicates how Americans have come to rely on processed foods[4].

Artificial Dyes and the Law

Food colorings have a long history with the law. Federal oversight of color additives started in the 1880s. The evaluation of color-imparting elements in foods was amongst the first public initiatives conducted by the U.S. In 1881, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Bureau of Chemistry commenced research on utilizing colors in food, and butter and cheese were the first products to receive authorization for artificial coloring usage[3].


By the 1900s, foods, drugs, and cosmetics were allowed to be artificially colored. However, food coloring agents were not all harmless, and some colorings were utilized to hide inferior or inadequate foods. Consequently, research into the colorings commenced, and researchers discovered that some coloring agents were derived from poisonous materials like lead, arsenic, and mercury[3].


Following this discovery, Congress enacted the Food and Drugs Act in 1906, which prohibited the application of poisonous or harmful colors in confectionery and food coloring to hide damage or inferiority. In 1907, the USDA declared Food Inspection Decision (F.I.D.) 76, which comprised a list of seven colors permitted for use in food[3].


By 1927, Congress gave the duty of implementing the Food and Drugs act to the recently created F.D.A. By 1931, fifteen colors were authorized for use in food, including six of the seven still in use today. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, the F.D.A. realized that due to development in colorings, the Food and Drug Acts of 1906 did not go far enough to protect the public from misbranded, adulterated and even toxic products. Therefore, they created a new act, The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which further expanded government oversight of food and drugs and established legislation to manage cosmetics and medical devices[3].


The 1938 FD&C Act required listing coal-tar colors in foods, drugs, and cosmetics. Additionally, the act included corruption and misbranding stipulations for applying coal-tar colors in foods, drugs, and cosmetics; required the listing of new colors; and made it necessary for companies to be a part of the certification program[3].


Through public hearings, F.D.A. formulated the FD&C, D&C, and Ext. D&C nomenclature for certifiable color additives. The F.D.A. also organized labeling and recordkeeping requirements, identified diluents permitted to be added to color additives, and instituted systems for requesting color additives and adding new color additives to the approved list[3].


In the fall of 1950, many children became sick from consuming an orange Halloween candy that contained 1-2% FD&C Orange No. 1. This was a color additive permitted for usage in food. Therefore, House Representative, James Delaney, held hearings on the possible carcinogenicity of pesticide residues and food additives. The combination of orange candy-gate and the Delaney hearings provoked the F.D.A. to reassess color additives. During their assessment, the F.D.A. discovered that many additives created severe adverse effects and, therefore, terminated their listings.


The Color Additive Amendments of 1960 officially defined "color additive" and ordered that only color additives listed as "suitable and safe" could be utilized. Additionally, the Amendment created constitutes in deciding whether a proposed color additive is safe. Under these amendments, the 200 coloring agents that were commercially in use were temporarily listed and were allowed use on an interim basis until they were either permanently listed or banned[3].


Today, there are laws in place that oversee the addition of food colorings. However, some of them are confusing and convoluted. For example, even if color additives are all safe, they can still be illegal under the F.D.A. Examples include if food coloring is used to conceal damage or inferiority of food or make food look like it was better or more excellent value than it is. However, food colorings are added to drinks, desserts, salad dressings, and more to conceal the lack of fruits, vegetables, or other components and make the food look better than it actually is. Those who defend food colorings argue that consumers can see food colorings added by reading the ingredients list. Therefore, the use of colorings must be declared on the front labels[4].


Currently, there are nine dyes approved by the F.D.A. Regardless of their approval, many studies imply that most of these dyes may be linked to health problems; including, cancer, hypersensitivity, or neurotoxicity[4].

FDA Approved Artificial Dyes

 

Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 account for 90% of all dyes used in the three most popular dyes. However, the FDA approves nine color additives for use in food:

 

  • FD&C Blue No. 1: Confections, beverages, cereals, frozen dairy desserts, popsicles, frostings & icings
  • FD&C Blue No. 2: Baked goods, cereals, snack foods, ice cream, confections, and yogurt
  • FD&C Green No. 3: Cereal, ice cream, sherbet, drink mixers, and baked goods
  • Orange B: Only approved for use in hot dog and sausage casings
  • Citrus Red No. 2: Only approved for use to color orange peels
  • FD&C Red No. 3: Confections, beverages, cereals, ice cream cones, frozen dairy desserts, popsicles, frostings & icings
  • FD&C Red No. 40: Cereal, beverages, gelatins, puddings, dairy products, and confections
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5: Confections, cereals, snack foods, beverages, condiments, baked goods, and yogurt
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6: Cereals, snack foods, baked goods, gelatins, beverages, dessert powders, crackers, and sauces[3]

Artificial Dyes in Soda The most common artificial dyes in soda are caramel color, yellow-5, and blue #1.

Artificial Dyes in Soda: Caramel Color

Caramel color is approved by the FDA and added to dark sodas like root beer and cokes. However, consumers of beverages colored by caramel color potentially are exposed to 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), a possible carcinogen formed during its manufacture. Therefore, California's Proposition 65 law orders beverage companies to carry warning labels when 4-MEI concentrations are in their drinks[5]


What Sodas contain Caramel Color?

Found in 66 carbonated beverages: AMP Energy Elevate, Barqs Root Beer, Bawls Guarana, Caffeine Free Diet Dr Pepper, Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi, Caffeine Free Dr Pepper, Caffeine Free Pepsi, Caffeine Free Coca Cola, Caffeine Free Diet Coke, Cherry Dr Pepper, Coca Cola Blah, Coca Cola, Coca-Cola Cherry, Coca Cola Cherry Zero, Coca Cola Vanilla, Coca Cola Vanilla Zero, Coca Cola with Lime, Coca Cola Zero, Dark Dog Energy Drink, Diet Barq’s Root Beer, Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper, Diet Coke, Diet Coke Cherry, Diet Coke Lime, Diet Coke Sweetened with Splenda, Diet Dr Pepper, Diet Dr Pepper Cherry, Diet Mug Cream Soda, Diet Mug Root Beer, Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi Lime, Diet Pepsi Max, Diet Pepsi Vanilla, Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry, Double Latte Power Gel, Dr Pepper, Dr Pepper Cherry Vanilla, Dr Pepper Ten, Gold Peak Diet Iced Tea, Gold Peak Lemon Iced Tea, Gold Peak Sweet Iced Tea, Gold Peak Unsweetened Iced Tea, Manzanita Sol, Miranda Pink Grapefruit, Mug Cream Soda, Mug Root Beer, Pepsi NEXT Paradise Mango, Pepsi One, Pepsi Throwback, Pepsi Wild Cherry, Pepsi X, Rockstar Energy Drink, SoBe Adrenaline Rush, SoBe Black and Blue Berry Brew, SoBe Sugar Free Adrenaline Rush, Sugar Free No Fear, Tamarindo Sol, TAVA Brazilian Samba, TAVA Mediterranean Fiesta, and TAVA Tahitian Tamure.[6]

Artificial Dyes in Soda: Yellow-5

Also known as tartrazine, Yellow # 5 may cause allergic reactions for those who are sensitive to aspirin. Yellow #5 has been linked to asthma, migraine, anxiety, blurred vision, and fatigue.


Yellow - 5 & Health

According to the Center for Science in Public Interest, Yellow 5 was not carcinogenic (cancer-causing) in rats, however, it was not sufficiently tested in mice. Yellow 5 might be contaminated with several cancer-causing chemicals[4].


What Sodas contain Yellow # 5?

Found in 22 carbonated beverages: AMP Energy, AMP Energy Sugar Free, Caffeine Free Diet Mtn Dew, Caffeine Free Mtn Dew, Diet Mtn Dew, Diet Mtn Dew Code Red, Fanta Pineapple, Full Throttle Citrus, Full Throttle Energy Drink, Full Throttle Sugar Free, Mello Yello, Mountain Dew Game Fuel, Mountain Dew MDX, Mtn Dew, Mtn Dew Code Red, Mtn Dew Game Fuel Citrus Cherry, Mtn Dew Kickstart - Orange Citrus, Mtn Dew Kickstart Fruit Punch, Mtn Dew Live Wire, Mtn Dew Throwback, Pimp Juice Energy Drink and TAVA Brazilian Samba.

Artificial Dyes in Soda: Blue #1

An artificial blue dye that originates from petroleum, Blue # 1 or "Brilliant Blue" is one of the most controversial artificial coloring agents. A water-soluble coloring, you can find the blue dye in a variety of different products like baked goods, beverages, dessert powders, candies, cereals, drugs, and other products. Brilliant Blue obtained FDA approval in 1969 for general use and, in 1982, received widespread approval for externally applied drugs and widespread use in cosmetics[4].


At an FDA committee meeting, the FDA requested doctors stop adding the coloring to tube feeding because of its effects on their patients. According to a testimony, the FDA cited that the blue dye was killing their patients and claimed that it caused refractory hypotension and metabolic acidosis which incidentally also turned their colons bright blue[1].


In a study conducted by The Center for Science in the Public Interest on Brilliant Blue, researchers noted they did not find any evidence of carcinogenicity (a substance that causes cancer) in rats or mice; however, they did raise questions of possible harm. They noted a blatant increase of kidney tumors with mice and rats that received a mid-dose of the Brilliant Blue. Additionally, Brilliant Blue "inhibited neurite growth and acted synergistically with L-glutamic acid" therefore, implying the potential for neurotoxicity. Researchers expressed concern for this finding, recommending further research to be conducted. This finding, the researchers noted, would be especially problematic for fetuses and children under the age of six months whose blood-brain barrier is not fully developed[4].


Blue - 1 & Health

According to the Center for Science in Public Interest, Blue 1 was not toxic in crucial rat and mouse studies. However, unpublished research raises the question that Blue 1 produces kidney tumors in mice, and a preliminary in vitro study raises questions about potential outcomes on nerve cells. Blue 1 may not cause cancer, but corroborative studies should be conducted. Additionally, the dye can cause hypersensitivity reactions[4].

What Sodas contain Blue #1?

Blue #1 is found in nineteen carbonated beverages: AMP Energy, Amp Energy Elevate, AMP Energy Sugar Free, AMP Energy Traction, Diet Man Dew Code Red, Diet Sierra Mist Cranberry Splash, Fanta Berry, Fanta Grape, Full Throttle Blue Agave, Full Throttle Blue Demon, Full Throttle Red Berry, Miranda Pink Grapefruit, Mountain Dew MDX, Mountain Dew Red, Mountain Dew Voltage, Pimp Juice Energy Drink, Sierra Mist Cranberry Splash, TAVA Mediterranean Fiesta and Tropicana Twister Soda, Grape[7].

Artificial Dyes and Overarching Potential Health Effects

The use of colorant in food and beverages has increased in recent times, although they haven’t been tested for their toxicity and other adverse effects in long-term use. Additionally, the impact of flavoring and coloring agents when combined with other additives is unknown. The CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest), a non-profit, encourages the ban of dyes or applies warning labels on products that contain them like the E.U. currently does. Although more research is needed to definitively say that food dyes are bad for our health, it is wise to play on the safe side and, when it is an option, choose foods and drinks that are made with natural colors (think fruit and vegetable extracts) instead of man-made options.


Sources

  1. Vani Hari, Feeding You Lies: How to Unravel the Food Industry’s Playbook and Reclaim Your Health (Hay House Inc, 2019).
  2. Rubina Gilani et al., “Effect of Brilliant Blue FCF Food Colour on Plant and Human DNA,” n.d., accessed May 8, 2021.
  3. “Color Additives History,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, accessed May 10, 2021, https://www.fda.gov/industry/color-additives/color-additives-history.
  4. Sarah Kobylewski and Michael F. Jacobson, Food Dyes A Rainbow of Risks (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2010).
  5. Tyler J. S. Smith et al., “Caramel Color in Soft Drinks and Exposure to 4-Methylimidazole: A Quantitative Risk Assessment,” PLOS ONE 10, no. 2 (February 18, 2015), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118138.
  6. “CARAMEL COLOR,” accessed May 10, 2021, http://www.overcaffeinated.org/ingredient/caramel-color/.
  7. “Blue 1,” accessed May 10, 2021, http://www.overcaffeinated.org/ingredient/blue-1/.
Cheat Sheet
  • A food coloring or color additive refers to any dye, pigment, or substance that imparts color when added to food or drink. Today’s food dyes most commonly are derived from petroleum.
  • There are laws in place that oversee the addition of food colorings. However, some of them are confusing and convoluted.
  • There are nine dyes approved by the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), however, many studies imply, if not confirm, that most of these dyes may be linked to health problems; including, cancer, hypersensitivity, or neurotoxicity
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