- In a press release published Monday, Consumer Reports warned customers that some Peeps marshmallow chicks and bunnies contain red dye No. 3, calling the dye a “known carcinogen.”
- Additionally, California lawmakers are looking into possibly banning red dye No. 3 and other substances in food, including titanium dioxide.
- The dye has been linked to cancer in rats, and has been associated with attention and behavioral issues in children, but more sufficient evidence of red dye No.3’s health effects in humans is needed.
Peeps marshmallow candies are a staple for many people’s Easter and springtime celebrations. But the dye used to give some Peeps their color—red dye No. 3—has some consumer advocates concerned that the dye may be doing more harm than good.
A press release from Consumer Reports, published on Monday, warned consumers that the lavender and pink Peeps marshmallow chicks and bunnies—as well as a few other types of Just Born Quality Confections candy products—contain red dye No. 3. The advocacy group called the dye a “known carcinogen.”
Consumer Reports, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and a number of other advocacy groups filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last fall to have red dye No. 3 banned from food and dietary supplements. That petition is currently under review.
Along with this petition, California lawmakers are now looking into the possibility of banning red dye No. 3 and some other substances in food, such as titanium dioxide. The substances are all banned in the European Union, and the law would mimic those same consumer protections in California.
The question of whether red dye No. 3 is truly dangerous for people’s health, however, is not so widely accepted. The dye has been linked to cancer in rats, and some studies have shown that there’s a connection between synthetic dyes, such as red dye No. 3, and attention and behavioral issues in children.
However, there doesn’t yet seem to be sufficient evidence that red dye No. 3 for one has the same effect in humans or is the cause of behavioral issues, respectively. And the FDA, for now, still calls color additives such as red dye No. 3 “very safe.”
“There has been some concern in animal studies with cancer. However, that does not translate to what would happen in humans. And there’s no information on the quantity it would take for this to happen,” Shelly Wegman, RD, dietician for outpatient nutrition services at the University of North Carolina Rex Healthcare, told Health. “Definitely, more research is needed.”
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What Is Red Dye No. 3 and Is It Dangerous?
Red dye No. 3 is actually a pink dye, Wegman explained, that can go by a number of names, including erythrosine and the FDA’s term FD&C Red #3. The dye is synthetic, or man-made, and is derived from petroleum or coal.
Red dye No. 3 is one of the least commonly used synthetic food dyes, Wegman said—people may be much more familiar with red dye No. 40, which is among the most common.
Despite this, there are about 2,900 products that contain red dye No. 3, according to the Environmental Working Group. In addition to lavender and pink Peeps, some brands of candy corn, jelly beans, and other candies are on the list, as are frosting, highly-processed fruit, and more.
Red dye No. 3 is not a new chemical, however. The lack of consensus about its safety may actually stem back three decades.
The dye was banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1990 in response to a 1988 study which found that red dye No. 3 caused thyroid tumors in rats. The ban—still in effect today— only applies to red dye No. 3 usage in cosmetics, externally applied drugs, and in some pigment forms, however.
At the time, the agency reiterated that the risk of getting cancer from red dye No. 3 was about 1 in 100,000, as reported by the New York Times. The FDA also told the paper that “it is in the process of extending the ban to cover” food and drugs, too. That did not happen, which has been a point of argument for advocates hoping to ban red dye No. 3.
“Red Dye No. 3 has been banned by the FDA from use in cosmetics since 1990, but inexplicably is still allowed in food,” Michael Hansen, PhD, senior staff scientist for Consumer Reports, in a press release. “It’s time for the FDA to protect public health by getting Red Dye 3 out of our food.”
This discrepancy between cosmetics and food probably has to do with the fact that there hasn’t been enough concrete evidence for the FDA to extend the ban, Wegman explained.
The cancer in rats study which prompted the cosmetics ban in 1990 doesn’t necessarily mean that red dye No. 3 is a carcinogen for humans, she added. It’s also unclear if there’s a specific amount that humans would need to consume to see a similar cancer risk, and it’s possible that red dye No. 3 isn’t absorbed by the human body in the same way that it was in the rats’.
A recently published review of studies found that data “supports a relationship between food dye exposure and adverse behavioral outcomes in children, both with and without pre-existing behavioral disorders.” Wegman said additional studies are needed to flesh out this connection a bit more.
“The biggest potential is there might be some people who are sensitive to [red dye No. 3],” she said. “There are people who are sensitive to several different compounds found in food—synthetic or naturally-occurring. So it’s one of those [where] you may need to be cautious.”
In the face of concerns about red dye No. 3’s safety, there are a number of advocates on the opposite side of the aisle who believe that misgivings about the dye are unfounded.
“Colors are safely used in a wide variety of consumer products, are among the most widely studied food ingredients, and are subject to strict global regulatory requirements,” Sarah Codrea, executive director of International Association of Color Manufacturers, told Health in a statement. The IACM organization promotes the interests of the color additives industry.
“The FDA and international regulatory bodies have all concluded that FDA-certified colors, including FD&C Red No. 3, are safe for children,” Codrea said.
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Making the Best Possible Choices When It Comes to Red Dye No. 3
Some, like California Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, who’s sponsoring the bill to ban red dye No. 3, seem to fall into the camp that the potential risks outweigh any benefits of chemical dyes, especially when there are alternatives.
“The idea here is for these companies to make minor modifications to their recipes so that these products don’t include dangerous and toxic chemicals,” he told Health in a statement. “Skittles and many other brands have already made changes to their recipes in the EU, the UK, and other nations where these chemicals are banned. We simply want them to do the same thing in the US.”
It’s also true that many of the products that have red dye No. 3 are linked to poorer health outcomes because they contain high amounts of added sugar.
“When you’re eating foods that possibly contain the red dye 3, they are going to be either candy or highly-processed foods to begin with,” Wegman said. “So if you can reduce your intake of highly-processed foods, that’s always a positive for health.”
While the FDA reviews the petition to ban red dye No. 3 and evidence into whether the product should be considered harmful to the public, there are things people can do to cut the dye out of their diets of their own accord, especially if they’re worried about its effect on their children.
“The FDA requires all color additives to be listed on product labels so that they can be identified by consumers,” an FDA spokesperson told Health. “Consumers who wish to limit the amount of color additives in their diets may check the food ingredient list on labels."
It’s worth noting that not all consumers may not be able to cut out red dye No. 3, especially if they rely on these more highly-processed foods due to cost, access, or other reasons.
But as is the case with most things, Wegman said that moderation may be a good strategy.
“People can have treats. It’s just how much do you eat at one time and how often?” Wegman said. “A daily consumption of an Easter basket full of candy, versus having a few pieces here and there, is very different on how all of the ingredients are going to affect your body.”