Artificial additives pervade our food supply at epic proportions. Manufacturers claim the stuff is added to enhance flavor, appearance, texture, and shelf life. Food dyes, a food additive used to deepen the color of candy, dry mixes, soups, and even bread, have gotten an increasing amount of criticism these last few years. Health authorities in Austria and Norway have even banned the use of artificial food dyes and European health authorities require a warning label on food that contains the synthetic ingredients. In Britain, warn labels caution that children who consume foods containing artificial food colorings are at greater risk for developing hyperactive behavior and ADHD. Meanwhile, the FDA in the United States has yet to say much about the proven health dangers surrounding these synthetic ingredients. So just how dangerous are artificial food dyes? The next four facts will inform you.
Why Are Food Dyes Dangerous?
1. Made From Petroleum
Originally made from coal tar, food dyes now come from an unrefined fuel source – petroleum. Consuming petroleum in any amount isn't the most pleasant thought; however, that's just what you may be doing if you eat non-organic, processed foods. Many popular sports drinks, sodas, powdered mixes, and energy drinks contain petroleum-derived food colorings. 
2. Possible Carcinogen
Red 40 and Yellow 5 and 6 contain the chemical benzene, a known carcinogen. The CDC claims that very little is known about the health effects of benzene, despite the mountain of evidence pointing at its cancer-causing potential.  While most of the world has banned the use of artificial additives containing this compound, American companies freely use Red 40 and Yellow 5 and 6 in many common processed food products. Processed macaroni and cheese, for example, commonly use Yellow 6 to bring out the food’s bright-yellow hue.
3. Contributes to ADHD Risk
Numerous studies have established a significant link between artificial food dyes and hyperactivity in children. An Australian study examining food dyes' effects on 200 children found that 75% of parents noticed an improvement in behavior and attention once dyes were eliminated from their child's diet.  Other research has validated this finding, suggesting future studies to determine safe intake levels for these products (if they exist, which I doubt). 
4. Estrogen Enhancers
Perhaps "enhance" isn't the best word because this isn't a good thing. Sunset yellow (Yellow 6) and tartrazine (Yellow 5) have been shown to behave like estrogen in the human body.  Why is this bad? Because high levels of estrogen, regardless of the source, can contribute to breast cancer and may decrease male sex drive, among other highly undesirable effects.  
Alternatives Exist - Choose Wisely!
The only way to completely avoid artificial food dyes is to consume an unprocessed, whole-food diet. If you're in a time crunch and have to purchase a processed food item, make sure it is organic. Organic products are prohibited from using artificial coloring, sweeteners, or flavorings. Although organic processed foods are not the most nutrient-dense food on the planet, they are a far better alternative to other options.
- CSPI. Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks. Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest; 2010.
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- Axon A1, May FE, Gaughan LE, Williams FM, Blain PG, Wright MC. Tartrazine and sunset yellow are xenoestrogens in a new screening assay to identify modulators of human oestrogen receptor transcriptional activity. Toxicology. 2012 Aug 16;298(1-3):40-51. doi: 10.1016/j.tox.2012.04.014.
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- Siepmann T, Roofeh J, Kiefer FW, Edelson DG. Hypogonadism and erectile dysfunction associated with soy product consumption. Nutrition. 2011 July-August;27(7-8):859-62. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2010.10.018.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.