Artificial food colors are everywhere.

Pick up almost any food or drink at the store, and you’re likely to see something like, “FD&C Red No. 40 or FD&C Yellow No. 5” somewhere on the label.

But there is one place that I often run into artificial food colors that always catches me off guard; vegan recipes.

Not only are these chemicals toxic, but they also aren’t without cruelty.

Artificial Food Colors + the Animal Testing Connection

First of all, artificial food colors undergo animal testing.

Shocking, right?

I know; I felt the same way.

It’s not something I would have thought to check either. But, I was curious how companies make artificial food colors.

So I looked it up.

Guess what? They are a product of the wonder of chemistry and the industry of oil drilling.

Most importantly, not something I want on my vegan cupcakes. Gross.

Why Do We Need Artificial Food Colors?

Artificial colors keep 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. 

Likewise, and perhaps more insidiously, the bright rainbow colors of candy and drinks lure children with promises of a tasty delight.

These impressionable experiences can have associations that persist well into adulthood when decorating cakes and cookies.

If you need an example, look at how many websites there are devoted to perfectly decorated food, for instance.

There’s plenty.

Row of artificial food colors on sale at a grocery store.

A variety of food dyes on sale at a store / Source

The Marketing of Artificial Food Colors

Have you ever noticed that the grocery stores always put artificial food colors on sale around holidays? It’s continuously advertised the many ways to incorporate these products into our diets. 

I’ve seen select colors for drinks, baked goods, or even ice cubes, for goodness sake.

All in the name of “fun.” 

But why? Colors don’t add flavor to our food; that is to say, they taste pretty damn bad.

Is sheer fun worth the lives of animals?

Food Additives & Animal Testing

Believe it or not, animal testing is a common way to determine the safety of these chemicals before being used as a food additive.

Frankly speaking, these tests do not indicate their effect on humans. Instead, they determine the amount needed to cause cancer and death in the animals.

Let’s take a closer look at what goes into getting bottles of artificial food colors to grocery store shelves.

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

  • Tested on animals such as mice, rats, and dogs.  Beagles were fed Brilliant Blue FCF for periods up to one year to determine the maximum amount of chemical one could ingest before it caused death. (1)
  • 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 European Union and the United States.  It causes allergic reactions in humans, particularly in people with pre-existing conditions. (2, 3)

#2.  FD&C Blue No. 2 – Indigo Carmine

  • Tested on animals such as mice, rats, and dogs.  “Accidental ingestion of the material may be harmful; animal experiments indicate. . .may be fatal or may produce serious damage to the health of the individual.” (4)
  • Indigo Carmine is a synthetic replacement for plant-derived indigo, often used as a textile dye.  It’s also used in OTC capsules and accepted for food use even though it is harmful to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. (5, 6)

#3.  FD&C Green No. 3 – Fast Green FCF

  • Tested on animals such as mice, rats, and dogs.  Beagles were fed Fast Green FCF for two years to determine its effects at high-levels of ingestion.  Here’s a hint, it’s many. (7, 8)
  • Fast Green is also an eye, skin, and lung irritant.  It even has its very own Material Safety Data Sheet complete with health advisories.  A little scary, right? (9)

#4.  FD&C Red No. 40 – Allura Red AC

  • Tested on animals such as mice and rats.  In one test, rats were impregnated and fed doses of Allura Red AC.  Before the mice and rats gave birth, researchers killed the animals. Then, they performed c-sections to study the fetus’s skeletal or soft tissue remains. (11)
  • Red; it’s one of the most-used artificial colors in candy.  It’s been found to cause behavioral & developmental problems in children. Also,  it’s a carcinogenic & mutagenic azo dye.  In short, it causes cancer growth in cells. (12, 13, 14)

#5.  FD&C Red No. 3 – Erythrosine

  • Tested on animals such as mice and rats.  “. . .studies revealed an increased incidence of thyroid follicular cell hyperplasia and adenomas in male rats that received. . .FD&C Red No.3. . .during life-time following. . .exposure.”  In other words, it gave the rats tumors and initial stages of cancer. (14)
  • Similarly, this azo dye is what is known as a toxic endocrine disruptor which means it destroys normal hormone function. (15, 16)

#6.  FD&C Yellow No. 5 – Tartrazine

  • Tested on animals such as mice and rats.  From one study, “. . .rats were deprived of food, but not water, and then blood samples were collected. . .Animals were then killed. . .” (17)
  • Yellow No. 5 is a human health hazard. (18, 19)

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

  • Tested on animals such as mice, rats, and rabbits.  Researchers put Sunset Yellow in petrolatum or in water solutions studied and found. . .[it to be an] irritant to rabbit eyes. (18)
  • Yet another azo dye.  Consumer advocates have petitioned the government to ban it, citing studies that found they increase hyperactivity in children. (19, 20)

More Artificial Food Colors

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.

If you ask me, that’s a pretty big vegan conundrum, considering that it, too, is tested on animals.

A variety of bowls and jars with various homemade food dyes in them (red, green, yellow, blue, purple).

A variety of brightly colored food dyes / Source

Natural Food Color Options

So what do you do?

Start by choosing a better, plant-powered rainbow instead. Use colors made from fruits and vegetables!

Yellow, red, purple, green, and even blue! Easy to make, these colors come from everyday ingredients found in your fridge or pantry.

Trust me; it’s not complicated or expensive.

Click here for the full step-by-step homemade food coloring tutorial.

Ingredients & Colors

  • Red/Pink: Beet, cherry, raspberry, pomegranate, or powdered freeze-dried strawberries
  • Yellow: Powdered turmeric
  • Purple: Acai, blueberry, or plum juice
  • Green: Spinach or other sweet green juice
  • Brown: Coffee or tea
  • Orange: Mix red and yellow colors together
  • Black: Swiss chard juice (use sparingly, it’s bitter)

Shop for Natural Food Colors

Would you prefer to buy natural food dyes? No problem.

Here are a few that are colored with vegetable juice or spices and contain no synthetic dyes.

Disclosure: These two options contain affiliate links I earn from qualifying purchases. See my Affiliate Policy for more details.

Color Kitchen Food Colors from Nature

I picked up a few packets to test out on my favorite sugar cookies.

I’m a fan.

First, the colors come packaged in individual packets, which means I don’t over-buy. Second, the colors mix easily and create beautiful colors. I don’t even mind that they’re more pastel than bright. Lastly, they’re budget-friendly.

Here’s a 10-pack, Color Kitchen Food Colors from Nature, that makes a good starter pack.

McCormick Nature’s Inspiration Food Colors

By far, these colors are the cheapest and the most widely available. The powdered colors come in a pack of three colors which you can mix for a variety of colors.

I bought this McCormick Nature’s Inspiration Food Colors pack when I made these unicorn sugar cookies. Just look how vivid the colors turned out!

Updates to This Article

I see some of you saying, “at some point, everything was tested on animals,” as a reason to continue eating artificial food colors.

But I think this misses the vegan point.

 It’s true; as vegans, there is so much we cannot avoid. Think medications, cars, or computers, for example.

Since I can’t avoid everything, I avoid everything I can.

Rejecting unnecessary synthetic chemicals disguised as food isn’t all that hard anyway.

 

Final Note

To clarify, sometimes I use “chemical” when talking about artificial food colors.

Before you start to type me an angry comment about how the entire world is made up of chemicals! Water is a chemical! Chemicals are everywhere!

I hear you, I know.

My claim is not that all chemicals are inherently bad.

What I’m saying is: Artificial food colors are toxic, unnecessary chemicals that are tested on animals.

In conclusion, they can and should be avoided.

Truth in Advertising

I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. Meticulously researched, the topic explored in this article contains the information available at the time of publishing.

I don’t just say it; I source it too.

Please contact me if you find incorrect data.

Article Sources

  1. Wikipedia. Brilliant Blue FCF. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brilliant_Blue_FCF
  2. EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food. (2010). Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of Brilliant Blue FCF (E 133) as a food additive. Retrieved from http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/1853.htm
  3. Bibra Toxicology Advice & Consulting. (1999). Toxicity Profile for Brilliant Blue FCF. Retrieved from https://www.bibra-information.co.uk/downloads/toxicity-profile-for-brilliant-blue-fcf-1999/
  4. Wikipedia. Indigo Carmine. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigo_carmine
  5. Chemwatch. (2009). Indigo Carmine Material Safety Data Sheet. Retrieved from https://datasheets.scbt.com/sc-206056.pdf
  6. MTT Agrifood Research Finland. (2009). Reducing Pollution From Textile Industry: Glucose Facilitates Use Of Natural Indigo. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090107085318.htm
  7. Wikipedia. Fast Green FCF. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fast_Green_FCF
  8. World Health Organization, International Peer Reviewed Chemical Safety Information. Fast Green FCF. Retrieved from http://www.inchem.org/documents/jecfa/jecmono/v20je12.htm
  9. Fisher Scientific. (2009). Fast Green FCF: Material Safety Data Sheet. Retrieved from https://mypages.valdosta.edu/tauyeno/chemicals/Fast%20Green.pdf
  10. Wikipedia. Allure Red AC. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allura_Red_AC
  11. Honma M. (2015). Evaluation of the in vivo genotoxicity of Allura Red AC (Food Red No. 40). Food and chemical toxicology: an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 84, 270–275. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2015.09.007
  12. Llewellyn GC, Penberthy JK, Parker JM. (2020). Food Color Additives in the US Food Supply: Review of Neurobehavioral Safety. Journal of Pediatric Neurology & Neuroscience. Retrieved from https://scholars.direct/Articles/pediatric-neurology/jpnn-4-015.php?jid=pediatric-neurology
  13. Shuji Tsuda, Makiko Murakami, Naonori Matsusaka, Kiyoshi Kano, Kazuyuki Taniguchi, Yu F. Sasaki. (2001). DNA Damage Induced by Red Food Dyes Orally Administered to Pregnant and Male Mice, Toxicological Sciences. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1093/toxsci/61.1.92
  14. World Health Organization, International Peer Reviewed Chemical Safety Information. Erythrosine. Retrieved from http://www.inchem.org/documents/jecfa/jecmono/v21je07.htm
  15. EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food. (2011). Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of Erythrosine (E 127) as a food additive. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2011.1854
  16. Wikipedia. Erythrosine. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erythrosine
  17. Sayema Arefin, Mohammad Salim Hossain, Shamme Akter Neshe, Md. Mamun Or Rashid, Mohammad Tohidul Amin, Md. Saddam Hussain Department of Pharmacy, Noakhali Science and Technology University. (2017). Tartrazine induced changes in physiological and biochemical parameters in Swiss albino mice, Mus musculus. Retrieved from http://www.jrespharm.com/uploads/pdf/pdf_MPJ_515.pdf
  18. Gao, Y., Li, C., Shen, J., Yin, H., An, X., & Jin, H. (2011). Effect of food azo dye tartrazine on learning and memory functions in mice and rats, and the possible mechanisms involved. Journal of food science. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22417523/
  19. Wikipedia. Tartrazine. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartrazine
  20. Tanaka, T. (1996). Reproductive and Neurobehavioral Effects of Sunset Yellow FCF Administered To Mice in the Diet. Toxicology and Industrial Health. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/074823379601200104
  21. McCann, D., Barrett, A., Cooper, A., Crumpler, D., Dalen, L., Grimshaw, K., Kitchin, E., Lok, K., Porteous, L, Prince, E., Songuga-Barke, E., Warner, J., Stevenson, J. (2007). The Lancet. Food additives and hyperactive Behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3

Photo Credits

Feature photo: Viktor Hanacek
Store Food Dyes: KD Angle Traegner
Homemade Food Dyes: KD Angle Traegner