If you pick up a pack of Skittles, Twizzlers, and pretty much any other commercially-produced red-colored food, I encourage you to read the ingredients.
Somewhere down towards the bottom of the list, I guarantee you’ll find “Red 40” listed as a food coloring ingredient. So, what exactly is red 40, and more importantly, is red 40 vegan?
As it turns out, red 40 is vegan-friendly. Unlike some dyes, which are made using animal by-products, red 40 is a natural petroleum-derived food dye. It contains no pork, animal char, or any other animal products that vegans try to avoid.
While red 40 is dietarily safe for vegans to consume, it’s not exactly a shining example of a nutritious food additive either. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about red 40 or food coloring in general, then you’ve come to the right place!
In today’s post, I’ll start by explaining exactly what red 40 is, how it’s made, and whether or not it’s cruelty-free (something that’s important to most vegans). I’ll also answer a few other commonly asked questions surrounding food dye and how healthy it is.
Let’s jump in!
What Is Red 40?
Simply put, red 40 is the most commonly used commercial red food coloring. It’s used to make red Skittles, red M&M’s, and a number of other artificially-colored products.
To see whether or not a product has red 40 in it, all you have to do is flip over the box and look towards the bottom of the ingredients label. Since food dye is potent, they’re usually one of the smallest ingredients.
“Okay, okay… But what is red 40 REALLY? Like, what is it made of?”
Back in the old days, red 40 was made from coal char. However, since the coal industry has pretty much been replaced, today’s red 40 is made using a petroleum base. After that, a slew of other chemicals is added to manipulate the petroleum molecules and create a highly-concentrated red dye.
Is Red 40 FDA-Approved?
Yes, red 40 food coloring is FDA-approved and is also approved by the EU (European Union). That being said, just because something is FDA-approved doesn’t exactly mean that it’s healthy.
Every year the FDA approves potentially dangerous foods and prescription medication, so it always pays to do your own research!
If you’re interested in how healthy red 40 is, keep on reading below…
Is Red 40 Cruelty-Free?
The main idea behind going vegan is to stop consuming food and items that contain meat or other animal by-products. However, most vegans are also against using products that have a history of being tested on animals (hence the movement towards cruelty-free cosmetics).
Unfortunately, red 40 food coloring is NOT cruelty-free.
During its development and testing, red 40 dye was tested on animals through forced consumption and application to their skin to ensure that it was safe for humans. So, although red 40 is dietarily vegan, it’s not a 100% cruelty-free vegan food coloring.
That being said, red 40 was developed quite a while ago. While animal testing may have been used in the original development of the product, it’s very unlikely that it’s still being tested on animals.
In this way, it’s a lot like cruelty-free cosmetics. There are a number of certified cruelty-free cosmetic companies that don’t actively test their products on animals.
However, many of those same companies use cosmetic compounds that were previously tested on animals. It’s one of those catch-22 situations that you can’t really get around as a vegan.
Is Red 40 Safe To Eat?
So, here’s where things get really interesting…
As it turns out, red 40 isn’t just an innocent food dye. At the core of its essence, it’s chemically-altered petroleum; and last I checked, you won’t find any doctors recommending that their patients start drinking engine oil and gasoline!
In fact, the opposite is true. Most petroleum products feature poison warning labels for consumers who accidentally consume them.
The obvious bit out of the way, though, red 40 has repeatedly been linked to cancer. Its predecessor, red 3, actively caused cancer in animal laboratory tests. While red 40 is considerably “safer,” than red 3, it still contains traces of benzidine and other dangerous carcinogens.
Consuming a few drops of red 40 food coloring from time to time probably won’t give you cancer. However, if you’re constantly consuming artificially-colored foods, your risk increases substantially.
The bad news is that it’s not just red 40. Almost every single other FDA-approved food dye has been tested and proven to be toxic to the human body somehow. Here’s a quick table breaking down the toxicology of artificial food coloring:
|Type of Food Dye||Toxicology|
|Red 40||Contains benzidine, a cancer-causing carcinogen. Has been known to cause a hypersensitivity reaction.|
|Yellow 5||Contains benzidine and several other notable carcinogens. Can cause hypersensitive reactions. Has been proven to be “genetically toxic,” and can alter your DNA and genetics.|
|Yellow 6||Also contains benzidine among other carcinogens. Causes hypersensitive reactions.|
|Blue 1||Causes hypersensitive reactions.|
|Citrus Red 2||Used to give artificial coloring to fresh oranges, and has been shown to contain carcinogens.|
If you’d like to learn more, be sure to check out this video by Dr. Anthony Jay describing how awful red 40 is for children to consume:
The Most Common Foods That Use Red 40
Hopefully, that chart was as eye-opening for you as it was for me! Prior to researching all of the dark science behind food dyes, I’d never really paid attention to these ingredients. I just assumed that since they were “FDA-approved” they were perfectly okay to consume.
Now I know better.
If you’re shopping for high-quality vegan foods, you’ll notice that almost none of them contain artificial coloring. This is because most food coloring isn’t cruelty-free and because of the health concerns, I listed above.
For example, if you compare a box of non-vegan, artificially-colored breakfast cereal to a box of vegan breakfast cereal, the first thing you’ll notice is that the ingredients list is a lot shorter. Vegan cereal is also dye-free. So, while it may not look as pretty, it’s far healthier.
That being said, here are some of the most common foods on the market that contain red 40 food coloring, so you can avoid them (or at least consume them in moderation):
- Strawberry, cherry, and raspberry-flavored candy.
- Red-colored breakfast cereal.
- Flavored dairy, such as ice cream, yogurt, and strawberry milk.
- Red-colored chips (usually the spicy flavors).
- Red-colored condiments like ketchup, hot sauce, chili sauce.
Of course, this is a blanket statement. Ultimately, the only way to know whether or not a food contains red 40 is to double-check the ingredients label.
Another thing worth noting is that food dye is usually present in cheaper, more processed foods. Organic and vegan foods typically contain little to no dye whatsoever!
Why Is Food Coloring Used?
You might be thinking, “Why is food coloring used, in the first place?”
Well, it all comes down to marketing and sales. Colors create psychological and physiological reactions in the brain. Our evolutionary biology has told us that the food with the most color is healthier and fresher, which is usually true if you’re out foraging in the wild.
The food industry uses artificial dyes to trigger this primal response in our brain and get consumers to buy more products or choose a better-colored brand over a less-colored brand.
Now that you know the truth behind food coloring, though, you can make the smart decision and stay away from artificial food coloring. As far as grocery stores are concerned, you should try to avoid bright-colored food, especially if it’s processed.
Conclusion – What’s The Deal With Red 40 & Food Dye?
Red 40 (and all food dye, in general) may be dietarily vegan. However, it’s pretty much the opposite of what most people consider “healthy.” Red 40 has been tested and proven to contain carcinogens like benzidine, which can cause cancer cells to develop.
So, my advice is to avoid food that contains red 40 and opt for more organic foods that aren’t artificially colored.
If you liked this post and want to learn more about food additives, then check out my post answering whether or not ketchup is vegan! Here’s a hint: red 40 may not be the only thing you need to look out for the next time you’re shopping for ketchup…