colorful candy with red 40 dye

What is Red 40? A Look At Food Safety and Sustainability

You might not realize it, but many of the foods you enjoy contain artificial dyes that have caused controversy over the past few years. One in particular, Red 40 is a vibrant color and ubiquitous food dye, that has colored food products and our favorite snacks for decades. In fact, California passed a law recently that banned over 100 ingredients, seperate of the Food and Drug Administration. As a food scientist, I want to address many of the questions on your mind, including: What is Red 40, how to avoid red 40, and is it sustainable?  This post breaks down the controversy, and looks beyond the potential side effects of Red 40.  


What is Red 40?

Red 40, also known as Allura Red AC, made its debut in the 1970s as a replacement for its predecessor, Red 2G. This synthetic dye was originally derived from coal tar, but today, it’s typically produced from petroleum. Red 40 is a water-soluble dye, meaning it dissolves in water. It is a reddish-orange powder often used to give foods and drinks a bright red color. It is one of the most common synthetic color additives in the United States, and it is also used in many other countries around the world. However, many countries have stated potential risks as a reason to discontinue its use. It’s found in everything from candy and cereal to soda and ice cream.


What is Red 40 made from?

Red 40 is made from a petroleum-derived chemical called aniline, which is treated with other chemicals in a complex process so it “safe” for consumption. Petroleum is a non-renewable resource. The manufacturing process involves a series of chemical reactions that transform petroleum into artificial food coloring red powder. This powder is then mixed with other ingredients to form a liquid or paste, which is then added to food and beverages.

chips on green and white ceramic bowl
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on

Where is this synthetic food dye found? 

Walk down any supermarket aisle, and you’re bound to encounter Red 40. Its intense red color makes it an attractive choice for manufacturers looking to entice consumers. It is found in a wide variety of red foods, including:

  • Candy
  • Cereal
  • Soda & Sports Drinks
  • Baked goods & Jello
  • Processed meats
  • Dairy products like Ice Cream and Yogurt
  • Snacks like Nacho-Flavored Chips, Fruit Snacks, and many more
  • Some medications, including prescription drugs
  • Some Personal care products and cosmetics
pulverized powders and assorted colored lispticks

Some Interesting Facts:

  • Red 40 is so potent that it can stain your tongue and even your teeth.
  • The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has set a lower daily intake limit for the artificial coloring than the FDA.
  • Red 40 is banned in some countries, such as Norway and Sweden, due to concerns about its safety. In others, it carries a warning label.
  • It’s used in pharmaceutical products and dietary supplements to give tablets their color
  • Red 40 is used in some cosmetics, such as lipstick and nail polish.
  • The FDA’s Food Advisory Committee has not found conclusive evidence of that this compound is a human carcinogen, so it is deemed safe for food use 

Is Red 40 a sustainable ingredient?

Red 40 is not considered a sustainable ingredient because it is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. The production of this dye also requires a substantial amount of energy and water, all of which contribute to climate change. You can read more about eating a sustainable diet in this article.

serious black man crossing arms as sign of restriction in light room

The Controversy Surrounding Red 40

While artificial food colors may brighten up our food, they has also stirred up a fair share of controversy. Some studies have linked Red 40 consumption to adverse health effects. It’s been associated with hyperactivity in children, although the evidence is not entirely conclusive. For this reason, it carries warning labels in the European Union. 

It’s notable to consider that in animal studies, it is not actually digested in the gut, and it passes through your body via urine. It is also not well understood if Red 40 has any interactions with other ingredients that pose any health risks. Finally, synthetic dyes are often found in ultra-processed foods, which can also lead to things like hyperactivity, migraine, or cancer. Here are some of the Red 40 hypothesized side effects associated with artificial coloring:


Hyperactivity and ADHD

Some studies have linked Red 40 to hyperactivity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. One study found that children who consumed a high amount of Red 40 were more likely to have symptoms of ADHD. Another study found that children who were exposed to synthetic dyes were more likely to have difficulty paying attention and controlling their impulses. It’s notable that foods that contain synthetic dyes often contain other processed ingredients, which can lead to a spike in glycemic index.



Some people have reported an allergy to Red 40. Symptoms of allergic reactions can include hives, itching, swelling, and difficulty breathing. The FDA acknowledges that some people may have an allergy to it.



Some people who suffer from migraines report that Red 40 triggers their headaches.

colorful candy with red 40 dye
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on


Studies in animals have linked Red 40 to cancer, but these are typically conducted at rates that someone would never eat. However, it is not clear if this is a risk for humans. The FDA has reviewed the evidence and concluded that there is not enough evidence to say that Red 40 causes cancer in humans.

However, other studies have not found any link between these ingredients and these health problems. The FDA has approved Red 40 as safe for human consumption. However, the FDA also acknowledges that some people may be sensitive to food dyes. There may be more reason to believe that ultra-processed foods are the contributor to these health concerns as opposed to the individual ingredients. 

assorted vegetables on white surface

Alternatives to Red 40

There are a number of natural colors you can use to replace artificial food dyes. These natural ingredients include:

  • Beet juice
  • Red cabbage juice
  • Red carrot juice
  • Paprika
  • Annato

These natural alternatives are used to color foods and beverages without causing concern to your consumers. These can be used at home in place of food dyes, or in manufacturing. 

woman wearing mask in supermarket

How to avoid Red 40

If you are concerned about the potential Red 40 side effects, you can avoid it by reading ingredient lists carefully. It may be listed on food labels as Allura Red AC, FD&C Red No. 40, or Red 40. Avoid foods that are brightly colored, especially red. 

You can also avoid Red 40 by choosing to eat more whole, unprocessed foods. Whole, unprocessed foods are less likely to contain artificial food dyes. You can even make your own food and beverages at home so that you can control the ingredients. Check out our whole, minimally processed recipes in our recipes section.

woman in gray shirt lying on bed eating chips. Wondering what red 40 side effects

Final Thoughts

Red 40 is a synthetic food coloring that is used in a wide variety of processed foods and beverages. It is one of the most common food dyes in the United States, but it is also seen as controversial. While some studies have linked it to health problems, more research is needed to determine its true safety. Red 40 is not considered a sustainable ingredient because it is derived from petroleum.

If you are concerned about the potential health risks of the synthetic dye, you can avoid it by reading food ingredient labels and choosing foods and beverages that do not contain it. There are a number of natural alternatives to artificial dyes that can be used to color foods and beverages without the concern for potential health risks.

Red 40 continues to be a widely used food dye, despite the controversies surrounding it. While some individuals may experience adverse reactions, many people consume it without apparent harm. As with any food additive, moderation and awareness of personal sensitivities are key. As our understanding of food additives evolves, it’s likely that the role and perception of Red 40 in our diets will also continue to change. For now, it remains a colorful topic of debate in the world of food science and nutrition.

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