Red Dye No. 3 and Thyroid Cancer

Seeing Red No. 3 Coloring to Dye for

Fifteen million pounds of food dyes are sold every year in the U.S. Why? Foods “are artificially colored to make unattractive mixtures of basic ingredients and food additives acceptable to consumers.” Food colorings are added to countless processed food products to “conceal the absence of fruits, vegetables, or other ingredients and to make the food appear better or of greater value than it is.” Otherwise cherry popsicles might actually look as if they had no cherries in them!

I’ve talked about the role of food dyes in causing ADHD symptoms in kids (See Food Dyes and ADHD), but what about their role in cancer?

Due to cancer concerns, Red dye #1 was banned in 1961. Red #2 was banned in 1976, and Red #4 was banned soon after. But what about Red No. 3, used today in everything from sausage to maraschino cherries? It was found to cause DNA damage in human liver cells in vitro, comparable to the damage caused by a chemotherapy drug whose whole purpose is to break down DNA, but Red No. 3 was also found to influence children’s behavior over 30 years ago and to interfere with thyroid function over 40 years ago. Why is it still legal?

By 1985, the FDA had already postponed action on banning the Red No. 3 twenty-six times, even though the Acting Commissioner of the FDA said Red No. 3 was “of greatest public health concern,” imploring his agency to not knowingly allow continued exposure (at high levels in the case of Red No. 3) of the public to “a provisionally listed color additive that has clearly been shown to induce cancer while questions of mechanism are explored. The credibility of the Department of Health and Human Services would suffer if decisions are not made soon on each of these color additives.” That was over 30 years ago. (To see the 1985 article published in the New York Times, check out my video, Red no. 3, Coloring to Dye for).

At the end of the day, industry pressure won out. While FDA scientists and FDA commissioners have recommended that the additive be banned, there has been tremendous pressure to delay the recommendations from being implemented.

In 1990, concerned about cancer risk, the FDA banned the use of Red No. 3 in anything going on our skin, but it remained legal to continue to put it in anything going in our mouths. The FDA also said they planned to end all other remaining uses of Red No. 3, lamenting that the cherries in 21st century fruit cocktail “could well be light brown.”

But over 20 years later it’s still in our food supply. After all, the agency estimated that the lifetime risk of thyroid tumors in humans from Red No. 3 in food was at most one in a hundred thousand. Based on the current U.S. population that’s 3,000.

This whole fiasco might become clearer once you watch my video Who Determines if Food Additives Are Safe?

I’ve touched on food coloring additives before:

Some other videos on popular food additives include:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Kathleen Franklin / Flickr

  • Joevegan

    It is immoral of the FDA to allow this, especially when marketed to children.

    • Darline Viernes Idan

      FDA is not about morality, or protection of public interest. It is a body made up of interest groups /money making individuals. many successful breakthroughs in cancer treatments have been deliberately suppressed by them (like Hyperthermia devices),even though they are practiced safely on other countries, while deadly matterials, such as AZT were approved. Commercialism is the mother of all evil with them.

  • Rita Banach

    Important to add that Red Dye #3 is primarily made of iodine, therefore restricted for those on a Low Iodine Diet (LID) leading up to radioactive iodine treatment to test for, or ablate thyroid cancer. It is difficult enough to be on this highly restrictive diet, to read food packaging labels, let alone to look out for this dye as an ingredient. And to make matters worse… in Canada, a food manufacturer only needs to label with the word “colour” and not specify which colour. A patient on the LID needs to therefore avoid all “coloured” foods that are red. More information here:

    • Frank

      In the United States, the FDA exempts food manufacturers from specifically listing Red Dye #3 on labels of food ingredients, and instead allows them to list “colorings” or “color added”. This is because Red Dye #3 is an FDA “exempted” color additive. This means that people could be consuming this cancer-causing substance in any candy, snack food, margarine, cheese, soft drink, jam/jelly, gelatin, pudding or pie filling without having the slightest idea that they may be harming themselves. Just think of all the cancer-causing foods that could be in vending machines and on the shelves of our grocery stores!

  • SaletteAndrews

    Thank you again, Dr. Greger! I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer 14 1/2 years ago. The low-iodine diet is what finally broke my dairy addiction and led me to go completely plant-based.

  • boazr

    Can anyone add details about the misc alternative names this artificial color might be hiding behind, on the nutrition information label? I want to start paying attention to it and having multiple names for the same or very closely related (and similarly harmful) additives is a very old, but unfortunately still effective, tactic used by food manufacturers… . TIA!

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      I see FD&C Red No. 3 – Erythrosine, E127 as alternative names. Perhaps there are more?

  • Wilma Laura Wiggins

    Kids always seem to get the worst of the bad, However, be aware that “natural color” may not be harmful, it certainly could be disgusting. Natural red is often crushed insects (strawberry ice cream, etc). We might need to get over thinking our food has to be prettily colored.

    • Schwartz

      I never blindly believe anything I read so forgive me for doing a little research on your statement. That said… Ew! I had never heard of cochineal and/or carmine before today. I have, however, believed that we all need to get over chemically enhancing our food products for the sole purpose of trying to make them look prettier. Along those same lines… I don’t mind a few brown spots on my fruits and vegetables either.

      • Wilma Laura Wiggins

        If you think that’s bad, natural vanilla flavor is likely to be beaver anus secretions. Really.

        • Schwartz

          You did NOT just say that. Picture me… Eyes closed, index finger firmly planted in each ear, loudly singing LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LAAAAAAA. This thread is making going 100% Paleo seem less and less daunting with each comment.

          • Wilma Laura Wiggins


          • Schwartz

            I’ll look into that. Thanks!

          • Ed

            Ugh… “Paleo.” I second Wilma’s suggestion to look into Dr. McDougall. He even has a video critique of the so-called “Paleo Diet” (i.e. Loren Courdain) on YouTube.

  • Psych MD

    This piqued my curiosity so I looked up one of Dr. Greger’s favorite whipping boys, Froot Loops. After taking a “Fruity Walk Down Memory Lane,” and reading about Kelloggs’ “Passion for Nutrition,” I checked the ingredients. Aside from sugar being #1 (which they are quick to “put in context”), it contains, among other things, Blue Dye #1, Blue Dye #2, Yellow Dye #6, Red Dye #40, BHT, and the ever-popular partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Buy hey, it’s also got “turmeric color” so it can’t be all bad.