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The Truth About 7 Common Food Additives

How safe are the ingredients in your food?
WebMD Feature

If, like many Americans, you stock your pantry with processed foods, you may worry about how safe food additives really are.

Over the years, the safety of many food additives, from food dyes to trans fats, has come into question. A scare over a food additive may linger in our minds long after researchers find that there's actually no cause for alarm. It can take years, or even decades, to find out the truth, and sometimes the case is never really closed.

To help you figure out what’s safe, WebMD took a look at the latest research on seven of the most controversial food additives. Here’s what we found:

1. Artificial coloring

What it is

Artificial food colors are chemical dyes used to color food and drinks.

Foods that have it

Many types of processed foods, beverages, and condiments have artificial coloring in them.

Why it's controversial

Artificial food color is suspected of causing increased hyperactivity in children. Also, the dye Yellow No. 5 has been thought to worsen asthma symptoms. (In the 1970s, the FDA famously banned Red Dye No. 2 after some studies found that large doses could cause cancer in rats.)

What the research shows

In 2007, a British study published in The Lancet concluded that consuming artificial coloring and preservatives in food can increase hyperactivity in kids. Scientists have been studying the link between food additives and hyperactivity in children for more than 30 years, with mixed results. But the results of the 2007 study compelled the European Food Standards Agency to urge companies to voluntarily remove artificial coloring from food products. The FDA, however, hasn't changed its opinion on the use of FDA-approved artificial food colors, which it considers safe when used properly.

Reports suggesting that the food color Yellow No. 5 might aggravate some people's asthma symptoms date back to the 1950s. But in most controlled studies, Yellow No. 5 has not been shown to have a significant impact on asthma, according to a review of all known studies, which is updated every year.

How you find it on the label

The following artificial colors are approved for use in food products and must be listed as ingredients on labels:

  • FD&C Blue No. 1 (brilliant blue FCF)       
  • FD&C Blue No. 2 (indigotine)
  • FD&C Green No. 3 (fast green FCF)       
  • FD&C Red No. 40 (allura red AC)           
  • FD&C Red No. 3 (erythrosine)
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine)
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow)
  • Orange B (restricted to use in hot dog and sausage casings)
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