Warning: What You Don’t Know About Food Colors

By KD Angle Traegner, Founder & Editor-in-Chief

Artificial food colors, they’re everywhere. Pick up virtually any food or drink item at most mainstream stores and you’d probably see, “Blah, Blah, Blah, FD&C Red No. 40, and FD&C Yellow No. 5”- or something like that. There is one place that I often run into artificial food colors that catches me off guard- vegan recipes.

Not only are these chemicals toxic, they aren’t without cruelty.  Artificial food colors are tested on animals.

Shocking, right?  I know.  I wouldn’t have immediately thought of it either, but I looked them all up to get an idea of what they are made of.  Guess what?  They’re achieved through the wonder of chemistry and the industry of oil drilling.  Certainly not something I want on my vegan cupcake, gross.

Why Do We Need Bright Yellow Sports Drinks?

Artificial colors keep the food sitting in warehouses and on grocery shelves fresh and cheery looking so that we’ll buy it thinking how good and tasty it must be.  Perhaps more insidiously, the bright blues, reds, and oranges of candy and beverages lure children with promises of tasty delight- an experience and association that persists into adulthood when it’s time to decorate cakes and cookies. If you need an example, just look at how many websites there are dedicated to cute and perfectly decorated food. There are plenty.

Food Coloring

Have you ever noticed that the artificial food colors at the grocery stores always go on sale around holidays?  We are constantly bombarded with ways to incorporate these synthetic chemicals into our diets.  I’ve seen special colors for drinks, for baked goods, for ice cubes for goodness sake- all in the name of “fun.”  Food colors don’t add flavor to our food, they actually taste pretty damn bad.  So, is our fun really worth the lives of animals?

Food Additives & Animal Testing

To determine the safety of these chemicals as they are used as food additives, they are tested on animals.  Of course, these tests do not indicate the substance’s effect on humans, only how much is needed to cause cancer and death in the animals they are administered to. Let’s take a closer look at what goes into getting bottles of artificial food colors to grocery store shelves.

The Seven Deadly Primary Colors

The Seven Deadly Primary Colors are the most common colors used in the US. This by no means is an exhaustive list, there are many more that I don’t cover here. But this is a good place to start to demonstrate how awful these synthetic colors are.

#1.  FD&C Blue No. 1, Brilliant Blue FCF.

  • Tested on animals such as mice, rats, and dogs.  Beagle dogs were fed Brilliant Blue FCF in the diet for periods up to 1 year to determine the maximum amount of chemical one could ingest before it caused death.
  • Previously banned in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland (among others) but is “certified safe” as a food additive in the EU and the US.  It causes allergic reactions in humans, particularly in individuals with pre-existing conditions.

#2.  FD&C Blue No. 2Indigotine

  • Tested on animals such as mice, rats, and dogs.  “Accidental ingestion of the material may be harmful; animal experiments indicate that ingestion of less than 150 gram may be fatal or may produce serious damage to the health of the individual.”
  • Indigotine is a synthetic replacement for plant-derived indigo, often used as a textile dye.  It is also used in capsules as it is accepted for food use- even though it is harmful to eyes, skin, and respiratory tract.

#3.  FD&C Green No. 3Fast Green FCF

  • Tested on animals such as mice, rats, and dogs.  Four beagles/group, equally divided by sex, were fed Fast Green FCF at 0, 1.0, or 2.0% of the diet for 2 years to determine it’s effects at high-levels of ingestion.  (here’s a hint, it’s many)
  • Fast Green is an eye, skin, and lung irritant.  It has its very own MSDS.  A little scary, right?

#4.  FD&C Red No. 40Allura Red AC

  • Tested on animals such as mice and rats.  In one test, rats were impregnated and fed doses of Allura Red AC.  On Day 20 (prior to birth) they were examined for gross abnormalities followed by euthanasia.  Caesarean sections were then performed to study the fetuses skeletal or soft tissues.
  • Red.  One of the most prolific artificial colors in candy.  Allura Red has been determined to cause behavioural & developmental problems in children.  If that wasn’t bad enough, it is a carcinogenic & mutagenic azo dye.  That’s right.  It causes cancer growth in cells.

#5.  FD&C Red No. 3Erythrosine

  • Tested on animals such as mice and rats.  “Chronic studies revealed an increased incidence of thyroid follicular cell hyperplasia and adenomas in male rats that received 4% FD&C Red No.3 in the diet (2464 mg/kg/day) during life-time (30 months) following in utero exposure.”  In other words, it gave the rats tumors and initial stages of cancer.
  • This artificial red is what is known as a toxic endocrine disruptor.  This means it disrupts normal hormone function.  Another malevolent azo dye allowed in food.

#6.  FD&C Yellow No. 5Tartrazine

  • Tested on animals such as mice and rats.  From one study, “At the end of week 13, all rats were deprived of food, but not water, overnight and then blood samples were collected via the abdominal aorta for hematology and serum biochemistry.  Animals were then killed by exsanguination from the abdominal aorta.”
  • Yellow No. 5 is an unqualified human health hazard.  It’s hard enough to fathom why any artificial color is permitted in regulated food, let alone this toxic mess.

#7.  FD&C Yellow No. 6Sunset Yellow FCF

  • Tested on animals such as mice, rats, and rabbits.  Sunset Yellow in petrolatum or in aqueous solutions studied and found not irritant to rabbit skin and was minimally irritant to the rabbit eyes.
  • Yet another azo dye.  Consumer advocates have petitioned the government to ban this and other artificial colors, citing studies that have concluded that these toxins increase hyperactivity in children.

The seven listed here aren’t the only ones out there.  Citrus Red 2 is approved for one use only in food- to color the peel of oranges.  That’s a pretty big vegan conundrum, if you ask me, considering that it too, is tested on animals.

Natural Chemical-Free Food Dyes

So what is a vegan to do?  Use natural food colors made from fruits and vegetables found right inside your fridge!  Here is a list of colors that are chemical-free to get the perfect color you’re looking for.

Desired Color Use
Red / Pink Beet, Cherry, Raspberry, or Pomegranate Juice
Yellow Tumeric
 Purple  Acai, Blueberry,  or Plum Juice (made from simmering ripe plum skins)
Green Spinach
Blue Boiled Red Cabbage
Brown Coffee or Tea
Orange Mix red and yellow ingredients together to get the shade you want
Black Swiss Chard Juice (it’s super salty and bitter- use sparingly) or a mix of food colors

Purchasing Pre-made Colors

If you would prefer to buy natural chemical-free dyes and sprinkles, no problem. India Tree has a full line of colors and sprinkles that are colored with vegetable juice and/or spices and contains no synthetic dyes. These are the sugars and colors that I use and I love them. Some people have said that they can taste the natural food used to create the colors- the green sprinkles use spinach and was the one most commonly said to taste like spinach- but I have never had that experience myself. To me, they taste like pure sugar and nothing else.

A note about India Tree products, not all of their product line is vegan. Some of the sprinkles contain beeswax so be sure to check the label prior to purchasing. Look for sprinkles made with raw sugar and carnauba wax, which is made from the leaves of the palm plant.

The India Tree Decorating Sugars Variety Set and this 3-pack of India Tree Natural Decorating Colors Set make a great starter set combo and are both vegan and free of artificial junk.

Updates to this Article

Without a doubt this article is one of the most popular articles I have ever written. It’s been shared hundreds of times and I’ve been flooded with comments and questions since it has originated. The most frequently asked question and/or comment has to do with when these colors were/are tested on animals, and if the practice continues today.

This information can be found by clicking the studies and sources that I have linked to in each example. Each one links to recent scientific data collected using animal-based studies- some as few as 1 year ago. Personally, I don’t view avoiding these toxic synthetic chemicals any differently than I do avoiding health and beauty products that are tested on animals. I know that there are some people willing to overlook animal testing because “at some point everything was tested on animals” and, “no one can avoid everything non-vegan so why should we make a big fuss over it,” but I think that misses the vegan point. There is so much we cannot avoid as vegans- things like medications, cars, or computers, for example. Since I can’t avoid everything, I avoid everything I can. Rejecting toxic synthetic chemicals disguised as food isn’t all that hard anyway.

Got a comment or question? Ask me in the comments!

Featured Photo: 96dpi