Understanding Food Dye Allergies

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on November 20, 2017Written by Stephanie Watson

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. A food allergy involves an immune system reaction that 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.

Food dyes that can cause allergies

Food dye allergies are pretty rare. Overall, experts believe that only a small number of people are affected by food dyes. Food additives can be naturally occurring or made in a laboratory.

Three dyes in particular have been linked to allergic reactions:

Carmine

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. It is also found in cosmetics. A variety of reactions have been noted including facial swelling, rashes, and wheezing. It’s also suspected to have a role in cases of anaphylactic shock where a cause isn’t easily identified.

You can find natural red 4 dye in:

  • burgers and sausages
  • drinks
  • candy
  • fruit 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 find FD&C yellow #5 in foods like:

  • candy
  • canned vegetables
  • cheese
  • drinks
  • ice cream
  • ketchup
  • salad dressings
  • hot dogs

Annatto

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. There are cases of mild skin reactions from annatto. Some studies have reported cases of severe, anaphylactic reactions in people who were sensitive to this dye.

Annatto is found in:

  • cereals
  • cheeses
  • drinks
  • snack foods

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

A severe reaction may include:

  • swelling of the face or lips
  • 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 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. You may 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 weeks 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 simply avoid it.

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