Understanding Food Dye Allergies

Food Dye Allergies

Have you ever noticed that you don’t feel well after eating certain foods? The typical American diet contains a lot of ingredients that may not agree with everyone, including lactose, wheat, soy, and additives such as MSG and food dyes.

You might have an intolerance or allergy if you have a physical reaction after eating foods that contain these ingredients. Food intolerance means your body doesn’t break down the food properly, or that you’re sensitive to it. An allergy involves an immune system reaction, and it can be serious.

The Food and Drug Administration makes sure that all food additives, including dyes, are safe to eat. Yet some people are more sensitive to dyes than others. And even though food dye allergies are pretty rare, they still can occur. If you suspect you might be allergic to a particular dye, here’s how to spot the signs and avoid foods that contain it.


Common Allergies

Food Dyes That Can Cause Allergies

Food dye allergies are pretty rare. Only about 2 to 7 percent of people with allergies react to dyes, according the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Three dyes in particular have been linked to allergic reactions.


Carmine, also referred to as cochineal extract or natural red 4, comes from dried bugs. It has been used in food since the 16th century. Only recently has research linked it to anaphylactic shock.

Learn more about anaphylaxis »

You’ll find natural red 4 dye in:

burgers and candydrinks and yogurt

FD&C Yellow #5

FD&C yellow #5, also referred to as tartrazine, is one of two yellow food dyes that has been associated with allergic reactions. People have reported hives and swelling after eating foods containing FD&C yellow #5. Studies many years ago also suggested tartrazine might trigger asthma attacks in children, although recent research hasn’t found the same evidence.

You can look for FD&C yellow #5 in foods like:

candy cheese ice cream salad dressingscanned veggies drinks hotdogs ketchup


The other yellow dye, annatto, comes from the seeds of the achiote tree, which is found in tropical countries. Annatto gives foods a yellow-orange color. Studies have reported several cases of severe, anaphylactic reactions in people who were sensitive to this dye.

Annatto is found in:

cereals drinkssnack foods cheeses



Signs You’re Having an Allergic Reaction

The symptoms of a food dye reaction can be mild or severe. During a mild reaction, you might notice:

  • flushing
  • headaches
  • hives
  • itchy skin
  • swelling of the face

A severe reaction may include:

  • tightness in the chest
  • difficulty breathing, or wheezing
  • dizziness or fainting
  • fast heartbeat
  • low blood pressure
  • tightness in your throat
  • trouble breathing

If you develop severe symptoms, call 911 immediately. This reaction can be life threatening.

If you know you have a severe food dye allergy, you should carry around an epinephrine auto-injector at all times. An auto-injector is considered the first-line treatment of a severe food allergy reaction.



Allergy Testing

With most food allergies, your doctor would give you a blood test or skin prick test to find the source. Unfortunately, there are no tests available to diagnose a food dye allergy. So you might have to pinpoint the allergen using some trial and error.

One option is to write down everything you eat in a food diary and note when you have a reaction. Then you can try avoiding those foods for a few days to see if your symptoms go away.

Another option is to do a food challenge. During a food challenge, your doctor will give you a series of foods. One or more of the foods will contain the dye you suspect is causing your problem, but you won’t know which one. If you have a reaction, you’ll know you’ve found the culprit.



Avoiding Food Dyes

The key to preventing an allergic reaction is to avoid any foods that contain the allergen. Total avoidance is easier said than done, though. Dyes can hide in foods where you’d never expect them. They can even lurk in some medicines and supplements.

You need to become a label detective, reading the ingredient list very carefully with every product you buy. If you’re not sure whether a certain food or medicine contains the dye, call the manufacturer to ask, or just avoid it.

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