Is Red Dye 40 Still Used in Food, and What Does Red Dye 40 Do to Your Body?

  • Medical Reviewer: Dany Paul Baby, MD
Medically Reviewed on 8/22/2022

What is red dye 40?

Red dye 40 is a synthetic, or man-made, coloring that's used to make certain foods and drinks look brighter and more appealing. Red dye is FDA approved, but some people notice a change in their child's behavior after they ingest red dye 40.
Red dye 40 is a synthetic, or man-made, coloring that's used to make certain foods and drinks look brighter and more appealing. Red dye is FDA approved, but some people notice a change in their child's behavior after they ingest red dye 40.

If your child has ever acted out in public after eating a bag of candy, you might have wondered whether the package of sweets was to blame for your child’s bad mood. You’ve probably heard that sugar, food dyes, and other additives cause hyperactivity and outbursts in kids. 

Is this explanation true, or is it simply a convenient myth for poor behavior? 

Learn more below about red dye 40, which is an FDA-approved artificial food coloring, and determine whether you and your kids should be eating foods that contain this chemical or not.

Red dye 40 is a synthetic, or man-made, coloring that’s used to make certain foods and drinks look brighter and more appealing. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration certifies that red dye 40 is safe to consume, and they’ve included it on a list of nine food coloring agents that can be used in food without causing health problems. 

Other ingredients on this list are common additives you might find in candy, cereal, pastries, ice cream, and yogurt. You might recognize names such as “FD&C Blue No. 1” or “Orange B” from nutrition labels. 

Still, while the government has approved the safety of red dye 40 (which you can find listed as FD&C Red No. 40, Red 40, or Red No. 40 on your nutrition labels), many people worry about consuming it in large amounts over the course of their lifetimes. Many parents suspect that additives like these might cause hyperactivity in their kids, and some people with chronic diseases are concerned about the impact of synthetic dyes on their health.

What happens to your body when you eat or drink red dye 40?

The FDA maintains that as far as they know, synthetic food coloring is generally safe — but there are a few studies that indicate that food dye might be a problem for some kids. In contrast to the U.S., many European countries have taken a different approach: They rely on natural coloring products like fruit juices and turmeric rather than using artificial dyes because of similar concerns. 

Knowing that other countries have banned food dyes can make American parents uncomfortable about the state of food in the U.S. — especially if these people notice behavior problems in their child shortly after the child eats multicolored candy or slurps down a red popsicle. If your child acts differently after consuming a product made with red dye 40, talk to your doctor about your concerns. 

In the meantime, it’s easy to avoid food dye: Simply look at the product’s nutritional label. Food dye is always listed in the “ingredients” section. You'll either see the specific dye's name or read a disclaimer like "food coloring added".

Red dye 40 and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder

It has been difficult for researchers to determine whether food dyes might be related to ADHD symptoms because the diagnostic criteria for ADHD have changed a few times throughout the last three decades. 

While food dye doesn’t cause ADHDADHD is a developmental condition that affects how a child or adult perceives information, uses executive function skills, and pays attention — some people think it may affect attention and cause hyperactivity symptoms. Parents who adhere to elimination diets like the Feingold diet (which cuts out all dyes and artificial ingredients) claim that removing dyes from their child’s diet has helped their symptoms.

Red dye 40 and cancer

Red dye 40 contains a chemical compound called benzidine. Benzidine has been labeled as a carcinogen, which means that it can contribute to the development of cancer. Fortunately, the amount of benzidine in red dye 40 is well under the threshold where researchers and doctors become concerned about cancer developing. 

There’s about a one in a million chance of developing cancer from this level of benzidine. In the real world, the amount of red dye 40 in common food products is considered safe for this reason. 

Despite this claim, it’s always shocking to hear that an ingredient has been linked to cancer, and this reason alone might make you avoid red dye 40 just in case you otherwise become the one in a million.

Red dye 40 and neurological health

In a study that examined the impact of food dyes on human health, researchers noted that red dye 40 and red dye 3 had the most impact on neurological health. Researchers used “toxicity forecasting,” or ToxCast, to determine whether common food dyes had an effect on certain brain chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency has used ToxCast data to determine how dangerous chemicals, contaminants, and pesticides are to the human body.

According to their report, red dye 40 might be able to disrupt the brain’s regulation of certain neurotransmitters like adenosine, serotonin, and dopamine. Red dye 40 could potentially interfere with the way the body processes thyroid hormones as well. 

This research is still preliminary and experimental, though, and these studies can’t completely predict how these additives will affect a real human body. For example, your body may digest or get rid of certain dyes before they have the chance to affect the brain. 

You shouldn’t rely on this information alone to make healthy choices for yourself at this point, but it’s worth keeping in mind if you have neurological problems or you have any type of chronic health condition.

Why are synthetic food dyes used at all?

Ultimately, the inclusion of dyes means that manufacturers are able to sell more brightly-colored, appealing food products — but it also might mean that parents are able to use these tactics to get more kids to try yogurt, eat “fun” food that contains hidden fruits and vegetables, and take chewable vitamins that are important to their growth and development

If you’re concerned with the number of artificial ingredients in your food, you may wonder about a logical alternative: Why don’t food manufacturers simply use natural ingredients? 

In short, food dyes are less expensive for manufacturers to use than natural color additives like turmeric or carrot juice.  

What is the Feingold Diet, and what does it have to do with food dyes?

Many parents of children with ADHD, autism, and other neurological conditions have turned to elimination diets to determine whether food is worsening or even causing their kids’ challenging symptoms. The Feingold Diet is a popular program that eliminates food dyes like red dye 40 and promotes a “cleaner” way of eating.

Using elimination diets to target troubling symptoms

It’s hard to tell if a food or drink is causing your symptoms if you don’t have a “true” food allergy. True allergies are usually obvious: You might wheeze, cough, or develop hives. Severe allergy attacks require medication like epinephrine to stop, or they could prove fatal.

Food sensitivities, where the body reacts to food in a different way that usually doesn't involve the immune system, can be difficult to detect. This is where elimination diets come into play. Your doctor may suggest that you cut out certain foods, drinks, or ingredients from your child’s diet and then introduce them one by one to determine whether you’re reacting to them.

Why you should be careful with elimination diets

Elimination diets — especially those that cut out major food groups such as dairy and grains — aren’t meant to be continued long-term. If you’re considering using the Feingold diet to diagnose a sensitivity to red dye 40, make sure to do so under the supervision of a medical professional.

Remember that you can safely cut food dyes out of your diet even without engaging in an elimination diet because they don’t serve a nutritional purpose in food. If you wish to cut out more ingredients or food groups, though, and you aren’t sure you or your child is receiving adequate nutrition, please discuss your concerns with a doctor or nutritionist.


According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

What foods might list red dye 40 as an ingredient?

It can be difficult to figure out which foods include red dye 40 because not all of them are red. Red dye 40 is often used, though, in the following foods:

  • Cereals
  • Drinks that have been artificially colored
  • Colorful dairy products like strawberry milk and yogurt
  • Dessert items like cakes, cookies, candy, and pudding
  • Baked goods
  • Brightly-colored gelatin products like watermelon Jell-O

If you’re trying to avoid food dyes, take caution with store-bought products that are bright red or orange, and don’t be surprised to find other types of food dye in hot dogs, sausages, sauces, and crackers as well.

If you’re eating food you made from scratch or if you bought something with “natural” or “organic” ingredients, though, it probably does not contain artificial dyes. 

What are alternatives to using food dyes and red dye 40?

The United States isn’t the only place in the world that has a large percentage of concerned parents asking manufacturers to cut out dyes. While there isn’t substantial evidence that food dyes — even red dye 40 — directly cause hyperactivity, many people eschew artificial ingredients in food altogether.

If you’re concerned about your intake of food dyes or you suspect that your child’s love of red popsicles is contributing to their hyperactivity, it won't hurt to stop eating these sweets, as there is no nutritional value to food coloring. Instead, look for natural ingredients including fruit-juice-based dyes, monitor any odd symptoms closely, and be sure to talk to your doctor about meeting nutritional requirements for you or your child before you embark on an elimination diet.

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Medically Reviewed on 8/22/2022

Children's Hospital Colorado: "Food Intolerance and Elimination Diet Tips for Parents."

Environmental Health Perspectives: "DIET AND NUTRITION: The Artificial Food Dye Blues."

Environmental Protection Agency: "Toxicity Forecasting."

The Feingold Association: "What is The Feingold Diet?"

National Public Radio: "FDA Probes Link Between Food Dyes, Kids' Behavior."

Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment: "Health Effects Assessment: Potential Neurobehavioral Effects of Synthetic Food Dyes in Children."

U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Watermelon Gelatin Dessert, Watermelon."

U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "Color Additives Questions and Answers for Consumers."