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How Safe Are Color Additives?

raspberry cheesecake with chocolate syrup

Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow, and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green. Here at the FDA, we’re committed to making sure the color additives in your food are safe.

Color additives are used in foods to:

  • Offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture, or storage conditions
  • Make natural variations in color look more uniform
  • Enhance colors that occur naturally
  • Provide color to colorless and “fun” foods, like those brightly colored popsicles that are perfect for beating the summer heat.

The FDA regulates color additives used in food and dietary supplements marketed in the United States. FDA is responsible for making sure all foods containing color additives are safe for consumption, contain only approved ingredients, and are properly labeled.

So how do we ensure that these colors are safe?

First of all, the FDA uses the best science available to determine whether there is “a reasonable certainty of no harm” to consumers when the color additive is used properly (at its intended level and for its intended purpose). When the FDA approves a color additive, the Agency issues strict requirements for it. Among other things, these requirements specify :

  • The types of foods in which it can be used
  • The maximum amounts allowed to be used
  • How it should be identified on the food label

All color additives are subject to ongoing safety review as science and methods of testing continue to improve.

It is possible, but it is rare, to have an allergic-type reaction to a color additive. For example, in the 1980s, an FDA panel concluded that fewer than one of 10,000 people might experience itching or hives after consuming a food containing FD&C Yellow No. 5. This color additive is widely found in beverages, desserts, processed vegetables, candy, and other products. As with all certified colors, FD&C Yellow No. 5 must be listed on the food label – so that consumers who are sensitive to the color can avoid it.

There are times when the FDA learns that a food containing a color additive may be unsafe. For example, the food may contain a color additive that is prohibited, or the additive may be improperly identified on the packaging. In these situations, the FDA can issue a warning letter to the manufacturer, detain products before they are shipped to stores, or even seize products.

FDA continually monitors reports of problems that may be related to color additives. If you think that you have had an allergic or other kind of reaction to a color additive, phone the FDA at 301-436-2405.

Questions and Answers

Updated July 30, 2010

Q. What about the link between food additives and cancer? ADHD?

A. In the approval process, FDA evaluates safety data to ensure that a color additive is safe for its intended purposes. Color additives that FDA has found to cause cancer in animals or humans may not be used in FDA-regulated products marketed in the United States. For information, see this consumer update on color additives. As for ADHD, results on studies about a link between color additives and ADHD have been inconclusive, inconsistent, or difficult to interpret due to inadequacies in study design. For details, see “Do additives cause childhood hyperactivity?” in Food Ingredients and Colors.

Posted in: Food Safety ScienceTagged: Additives | Color