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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. But 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's 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 adds color to your food or drink. Found in many forms, dyes can be liquids, powders, gels, and pastes.


Food coloring is either natural, artificial, or caramel. And they've been around for a long time! Naturally occurring color additives in ancient times included paprika, turmeric, saffron, iron, and lead oxides. They were often used to color foods, drugs, and cosmetics. And today, you'll find food coloring in both commercial food production and at-home domestic cooking. [2,3]


Although dyes have been around for a while, we've seen a dramatic increase in dye use and production since 1955. This could be a sign of just how much we rely on processed foods. [4]

A History of Artificial Food Dyes

Coal Tar Colors

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, people called them coal tar colors. [3]


Today, most dyes come from petroleum. Petroleum is cheaper, more stable, and brighter than most natural dyes. So, although natural dyes are preferable, most sodas use artificial food dyes to give them that soda-like coloring. [4]

Federal Oversight Begins 

Federal oversight of color additives started in the 1880s. The evaluation of color-imparting elements in foods was among the first public initiatives conducted by the United States. In 1881, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Bureau of Chemistry commenced research on food coloring. Butter and cheese were the first products to receive authorization for the use of artificial coloring. [3]


By the 1900s, manufacturers were using artificial colors in all kinds of foods, drugs, and cosmetics. Things started to get out of hand, with some instances where manufacturers added food coloring to hide inferior or unsafe foods.


This kick-started further research into food dyes and their health impacts. Researchers discovered that some food coloring agents came from poisonous materials like lead, arsenic, and mercury. Aka not the kinds of things you want to be consuming! [3]

The Food and Drugs Act

Following this horrific discovery, Congress enacted the Food and Drugs Act in 1906. This prohibited the use of poisonous or harmful colors in confectionery and food coloring. Thank goodness! Then, in 1907, the USDA declared Food Inspection Decision (F.I.D.) 76. This decision listed off seven colors permitted for use in food. [3]


By 1927, Congress handed off responsibility for the Food and Drugs Act to the recently created Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Then, by 1931, they authorized fifteen colors for use in food, including six of the seven still in use today.

Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act

But, in the 1920s and 1930s, the FDA came to realize that the Food and Drugs Act of 1906 wasn't enough. There was still misbranded, adulterated, and even toxic products on the market. So they created a new act, The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act of 1938. This further expanded government oversight of food and drugs. And it also established legislation to manage cosmetics and medical devices. [3]


The 1938 FD&C Act required listing coal-tar colors in foods, drugs, and cosmetics. And if you did use coal-tar colors, the act also included corruption and misbranding stipulations. It also required the listing of new colors and made it necessary for companies to be a part of the certification program. All steps in the right direction! [3]


With this new act, the FDA took over the management of food dye labeling and record keeping requirements. It also controlled what diluent you could or couldn't include in color additives. And it built a better system for getting new color additives on the approved list. Because if it wasn't on the list, you couldn't use it! [3]

Orange "Candy Gate"

But even with all these precautions in place, trouble was still brewing for food coloring and artificial dyes. In the fall of 1950, many children became sick from consuming an orange Halloween candy that contained 1-2% FD&C Orange #1. The FDA had approved this color additive and it was supposedly "safe" for use in food.


This triggered House Representative James Delaney to hold hearings on the possible carcinogenicity of pesticide residues and food additives. This plus the shock of orange "candy gate" provoked the FDA to reassess their approach to color additives. During their assessment, the FDA discovered that many additives had severe adverse effects.

Color Additive Amendments

The Color Additive Amendments of 1960 officially defined "color additive" and ordered that manufacturers could only use color additives listed as "suitable and safe". The Amendment also put into place processes for determining whether a color additive is safe or not. It took a hard look at the 200 coloring agents currently in use and put them on the "suitable and safe" list or the banned list. [3]

The Danger of "Safe" Food Dyes

So, where are we today with the oversight of food dyes? There are currently laws in place that oversee the addition of food coloring. And even if you can use a food dye, there are processes to prevent the use of that legal food dye to conceal damage or inferior foods.


However, that doesn't stop the use of food coloring in products like drinks, desserts, salad dressings, and more to make food products look better or healthier than they really are. This technically isn't illegal, but it's not exactly great for us. Food dyes help make not-so-healthy-foods look like they're colorful, healthy, and yummy.


Food products must list food dyes on the ingredients label. But unless you're paying attention to the label, there's a good chance you're not aware of how many food items contain food coloring. [4]

FDA Approved Artificial Dyes

Dyes are not permitted for use in the U.S. unless the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tested and certified that the dye meets particular legal specifications.


Currently, there are nine dyes who have passed the test: 

  • FD&C Blue #1
  • FD&C Blue #2
  • FD&C Green #3
  • Orange B
  • Citrus Red #2
  • FD&C Red #3
  • FD&C Red #40
  • FD&C Yellow #5
  • FD&C Yellow #6


These nine dyes are currently approved for use in food by the FDA. However, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 account for more than 90% of all food coloring.

Foods With Artificial Dyes

But what foods contain these nine FDA approved dyes? Here's a list of foods that contain artificial food dyes: [3]

  • FD&C Blue #1: Confections, beverages, cereals, frozen dairy desserts, popsicles, frostings & icings
  • FD&C Blue #2: Baked goods, cereals, snack foods, ice cream, confections, and yogurt
  • FD&C Green #3: Cereal, ice cream, sherbet, drink mixers, and baked goods
  • Orange B: Only approved for use in hot dog and sausage casings
  • Citrus Red #2: Only approved for use to color orange peels
  • FD&C Red #3: Confections, beverages, cereals, ice cream cones, frozen dairy desserts, popsicles, frostings & icings
  • FD&C Red #40: Cereal, beverages, gelatins, puddings, dairy products, and confections
  • FD&C Yellow #5: Confections, cereals, snack foods, beverages, condiments, baked goods, and yogurt
  • FD&C Yellow #6: Cereals, snack foods, baked goods, gelatins, beverages, dessert powders, crackers, and sauces


Regardless of their approval, many studies imply that most of these dyes could lead to health problems. These could include cancer, hypersensitivity, or neurotoxicity. [4]

Artificial Dyes in Soda

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

Caramel Color

Caramel is an FDA-approved color added to dark sodas like root beer and coke. However, if you're drinking these sodas the caramel coloring could be exposing you to 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI).


This is a possible carcinogen formed during manufacturing. It's bad enough that California's Proposition 65 law orders beverage companies to carry a warning label when 4-MEI concentrations are in their drinks. [5]


Curious what sodas contain Caramel Coloring? Here's the full list of all 66 carbonated beverages: [6]

  • 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
  • TAVA Tahitian Tamure

 

Yellow #5

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


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. This means that yellow #5 could be contaminated with several cancer-causing chemicals. [4]


Curious what sodas contain Yellow #5? Here's the full list of all 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
  • TAVA Brazilian Samba

 

Blue #1

Blue #1 or "Brilliant Blue" is an artificial blue dye that originates from petroleum. It's one of the most controversial artificial coloring agents.


As a water-soluble coloring, you can find this blue dye in a variety of different products like baked goods, beverages, dessert powders, candies, cereals, drugs, and more. Brilliant Blue obtained FDA approval in 1969 for general use. And, in 1982, it received widespread approval for externally applied drugs and cosmetics. [4]


At an FDA committee meeting, the FDA requested doctors stop adding the coloring to tube feeding. According to a testimony, the FDA cited that the blue dye was killing their patients. They claim it causes refractory hypo-tension and metabolic acidosis. It also happens to turn patients' colons bright blue! [1]


In a study conducted on Brilliant Blue by The Center for Science in the Public Interest, 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 Brilliant Blue. Additionally, Brilliant Blue showed signs of neurotoxicity. Researchers expressed concern for this finding, recommending further research.


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]


Curious what sodas contain Blue #1? Here's the full list of all 19 carbonated beverages: [7]

  • 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
  • Tropicana Twister Soda, Grape

 

Are Artificial Dyes Safe? Artificial Dyes & Their Potential Health Effects

The use of artificial dyes in food and beverages has increased recently. And the problem is, we don't exactly know all the toxic and adverse effects that could result from long-term use. Plus 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 group, encourages the ban of dyes. And they're asking for more warning labels on products that contain them, which is something the EU currently does.


Although we need more research to definitively say that food dyes are bad for our health, it's wise to play on the safe side. When you have the option, choose foods and drinks made with natural colors instead of man-made options. Think: fruit and vegetable extracts!

Try OLIPOP!

And do you know where you can find well-researched ingredients without artificial dyes? A can of OLIPOP! Take a break from unhealthy food dyes and learn more about the ingredients we use in our microbiome-supporting sodas.

 

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 adds color to your food or drink. Most of today’s food dyes come 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 (FDA), 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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