April 14, 2024


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Why Is Red Dye 3 Still Allowed in Food?

3 min read

Your candy heart might lovingly read “Be Mine,” but it’s probably best if you “Beware.” Certain brands of the popular Valentine’s Day conversation hearts, such as those manufactured by Brach’s and Spangler, contain FD&C Red No. 3, also known as Red Dye No. 3, a synthetic colorant that’s now in the spotlight due to legislative action targeting ongoing concerns about its safety.

More than three decades ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of Red 3 in cosmetics, like lipsticks and blushes, because studies had found that high doses of the dye caused thyroid cancer in rats. But the ingredient has remained approved for use in food and medicines, and appears on thousands of product labels—mostly candies and beverages.

Public pressure has been mounting for months, urging the FDA to eliminate the dye, which has been on the market since 1907. In October last year, California became the first US state to ban Red 3 in food products starting in 2027. And a slew of other states, including New York, Illinois, and Washington, have introduced bills to ban Red 3. (Red 3 has been prohibited for almost all food uses in the European Union since the early ’90s. It’s also banned in Japan, China, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.)

In lieu of federal action, the patchwork of statewide laws could, in theory, see the dye largely removed from American retail shelves. California alone has serious buying power: If the state were a country, it would have the world’s fifth-largest economy. “I can’t imagine that companies are going to be selling a California-specific candy and then another version to the rest of the states,” says Thomas Galligan, PhD, the principal scientist for food additives and supplements at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a food and health watchdog that petitioned the FDA back in 2022 to prohibit the colorant in foods and drugs.

Here’s what you need to know about Red Dye No. 3.

What is Red Dye 3?

Also known as Erythrosine, Red Dye No. 3 “is a coal tar dye, meaning that it’s a synthetic colorant made from petroleum,” says Homer Swei, PhD, the senior vice president of Healthy Living and Consumer Safety Science at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization focused on public health and consumer safety. Since the early 1900s, the dye has skyrocketed in popularity in the food and drug industries due to its bright red hue, making it a go-to choice for adding colors to drinks, confectioneries, and more.

Though Red 3, like most artificial colorants, has no functional purpose, our brains are hardwired to prefer red foods. The dye “is added to food to make it look good so that consumers like you and I want to spend our money,” says Galligan. “It’s a marketing tool for companies.”

Which foods contain Red Dye 3?

According to the Environmental Working Group’s database, which is designed to provide users with information about the potential health impacts of various consumer goods, more than 3,200 products currently sold in the US contain Red 3.


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