Artificial Colours Part 1

The food industry has a long history with food dyes, both synthetic and nature-derived. They are widely used because humans eat with their eyes. It’s important, however, to question and evaluate the safety of these synthetic food dyes. There are examples of food dyes widely used for years, then banned due to negative health effects, such as Orange 1. Today TellSpec is sharing the research on five synthetic food dyes possibly present in your food; with the exception of Orange 1, these are dyes that are currently approved as safe for use in noted nations.


Amaranth is a dark red to purple, synthetic azo dye derived from petroleum. Banned from use in US in 1976; banned in Austria, Russia, Norway. Allowed in UK, France, Italy. Carcinogenic and reproductive health effects in rats. Human gut bacteria can alter it to produce toxic byproducts. Found in: glace cherries, caviar, ice cream, fruit fillings, boxed cake mixes.

Other names: FD&C Red No. 2, E123, C.I. Food Red 9, Acid Red 27, Azorubin S, or C.I. 16185

Erythrosine is a synthetic cherry-pink dye. Second least common in US where Allura Red is favored. Heavily used in Europe where Allura Red is discouraged or banned. High doses associated with cancer, impaired liver function, body weight changes in animals. Considered safe in low doses. May interfere with white blood cells, may cause hyperactivity in children, associated with negative effects in asthmatic patients. Found in: candied fruit, processed meat, red pistachios, cake-decorating gels, chewing gum.

Other names: FD&C Red No. 3, E127, Food Red 14, C.I. Acid Red 51, C.I. 45430


Allura Red is a synthetic, orange-red azo dye derived from petroleum. Most commonly used red dye in the US, discouraged from use in EU, banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Switzerland. Considered safe in low doses, animal studies of high doses showed no significant effects. In combination with benzoates (common preservatives), may cause hyperactivity in children. Contains human carcinogen benzidene. Found in: soft drinks, fruit juices, frozen desserts, processed seafood, candies, fruit fillings.

Other names: FD&C Red 40, E129, Allura Red, Food Red 17, C.I. 16035


Citrus Red is a synthetic orange-yellow dye. Permitted with restrictions in the US. Used only to colour the rind of non-organic Florida oranges that haven’t developed a rich enough colour, usually early in the harvest season. In mice, increased mortality and liver damage was seen within weeks with a diet containing 0.1% Citrus Red. In mice injected with the dye, tumors appeared more often and were more severe compared to controls. Classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans by the International Association for Research on Cancer.

Other names: Citrus Red No. 2, , E121, C.I. Solvent Red 80, C.I. 12156


Orange 1 is a synthetic orange dye derived from coal tar. It was one of the original seven dyes approved for use in the US in 1906. It was banned in 1956, after extensive use in candies and popcorn, following reports of children becoming ill. Studies in adults found that eating twelve hard candies at the time was sufficient to cause severe gastrointestinal symptoms; studies in animals showed effects ranging from weight loss to death. This event, which occurred in 1950, was the first to prompt the FDA to reinvestigate the safety of their approved dyes. No longer in use.

Other names: FD&C Orange No. 1, Acid Orange 20, Orange I

Facing the effects of fungicides in our food

Fungicides are any chemical compounds, naturally occurring or synthesized, or biological organisms that are used to kill or prevent or inhibit the growth of fungi and fungal spores. Fungi include yeast, molds, and mushroom. These organisms can damage crops, infect livestock, and produce toxic compounds. Because of this risk to agriculture, a great number of fungicides exist to combat the huge diversity of fungi foes. TellSpec today will be examining three: Triclosan, Vinclozolin, and Thiabendazole. These cumbersome words describe potentially dangerous compounds.

Triclosan (TCS) is perhaps the most innocent of our three, at first glance, and its problematic nature is not immediately apparent. It is a halogenated phenol, or organochlorine, compound that is not highly regulated but is widely used. It is an antimicrobial though it has, of course, antifungal properties, that is found across North America, Europe, and Asia in everything from disinfectants and detergents to toothpaste, mouthwash, and deodorant. Evidently, though it is used in agriculture, residue on food is perhaps not the most likely source of consumption. Triclosan is indeed approved for use that leads to human consumption, and has been described as not likely to cause any adverse health effects in children or adults who use products as intended. This, however, is where the issue appears to lie, as TCS is not only intentionally part of a variety of products but is also a compound that makes its way into wastewater and the water treatment system in significant quantities. This has raised concerns of negative ecological effects on certain fish and is believed to contribute to antibiotic resistance. Furthermore, this source can lead to exposure to TCS above the levels studied when establishing its safety. Additionally, TCS has been found in human plasma and breast milk and has been implicated as an endocrine disruptor. All of these are concerns that were not part of the original evidence for safety and widespread use, which has pushed its re-review date by the FDA up by ten years.

Vinclozolin is a less widespread foe. In the US its use is approved only for canola crops and residual levels are permitted only in canola, livestock that have been fed canola, and wine grapes. However, vinclozolin has historically been used in the US to treat berries, lettuce, and wine grapes; different countries have different regulations against it; and a significant amount of North American produce is imported and residues may persist. Vinclozolin and its metabolites can have carcinogenic and antiandrogenic effects, where androgens are the male steroid hormones such as testosterone. This can affect development and function of sex organs and hormone systems, fertility, as well as circulating levels of sex hormones. In studies of mice, vinclozolin was able to bind to receptors, leading to masculinization of females and feminization of males. Furthermore vinclozolin shows transgenerational effects: the offspring of mothers exposed to vinclozolin can show physical damage (aside from poor organ development) and behavioural abnormalities.

Finally thiabendazole. Thiabendazole is approved for use in a variety of crops in a variety of methods: as a pre-planting treatment for soybean, wheat, and sweet potatoes; on growing mushrooms; and as a post-harvest dip or spray for citrus, apples, pears, bananas, mangos, papaya, plantain, carrots, avocados, peas, and potatoes. This spray is typically applied at the same time as wax coating of the produce occurs. It is approved in the US but not in the EU, Australia, or New Zealand. In animal studies, thiabendazole is carcinogenic and damaging to normal liver and thyroid function. Thiabendazole is assessed as safe to humans at the levels expected from a typical diet (and residue levels are, as a standard, restricted to levels well below those which cause negative effects in studies). However thiabendazole may be present not only in the aforementioned crops but also flour, rice, meat, meat byproducts, milk, poultry, and eggs.

So what is there to do? Fungicide residues are extremely difficult to avoid, as they can persist in soil and water. Organic produce and crops do not permit use of synthetic fungicides, and so are a good place to start. Shopping at local Farmers’ Markets offers the chance to ask the grower how they raise their crops and livestock. Choosing unwaxed produce and peeling fruits and vegetables can avoid some residues. Beyond that, staying informed and advocating, as is your right as a consumer, for greater safety evaluation and regulation of these compounds’ presence in your food.

Journal of Applied Toxicology
Informa Healthcare

European Food Safety Authority
General and Comparative Endocrinology
Nature Reviews: Endocrinology
Critical Review in Toxicology

Food Standards Agency
Australian Government ComLaw

Talking Trans Fats

Trans fat. By this time, surely a pair of words that brings up thoughts of ill health, negative effects, and disease. Research within the past decades has brought to light the risks associated with intake of trans fats, to the point where labelling has become mandatory and many institutions have called for outright bans of trans fat. Today TellSpec will be discussing what trans fats are, exactly; what health effects are associated with intake; where they are found; and a brief discussion of artificial vs natural trans fats.

What is a trans fat? The word trans refers to the actual configuration of the fatty acid. Molecules of fat contain fatty acids, chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms; the arrangement and number of these atoms is what makes for different fatty acids. A trans fat contains one or more double bonds in trans geometric configuration—a technical description, but essentially it means that the fatty acid is straight. A straight fatty acid will align more closely with another straight fatty acid, meaning that that fat will be more solid at room temperature. So we can see why shelf-stable foods tend to contain more trans fats—manufacturers want fats that will stay solid at room temperature and have a longer shelf-life.


Hydrogenation is a term commonly linked to trans fats. Hydrogenated fats are straight-chained and solid at room temperature. Compared to butter, a solidified vegetable oi is much cheaper and less likely to go rancid. It is important to note that a hydrogenated fat is not the same as a trans fat—ideally a hydrogenated fat has been fully hydrogenated, that is, saturated with hydrogen atoms, so no carbon double bonds are present. As mentioned, trans fats have one or more double bonds. However, artificial trans fats are a commonly produced during the hydrogenation process; therefore hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils as ingredients will typically introduce trans fats into the product.
This is obviously a fairly technical description, but what does this all mean to the consumer?

Trans fats have been investigated heavily in the past few years. Particularly after the fiasco of hydrogenated vegetable oil margarines which contained trans fats being promoted as far healthier than butter with its high saturated fat. This came under fire with the discovery that the trans fats in those early brands of margarine were quite dangerous (as well as recent research that has taken saturated fat down from the position of indisputable villainy.) Most manufacturers have reformulated their spreads to contain minimal or no trans fats, however the nutrition and ingredients labels are the best guide. As far as whether margarine or butter is “superior”, the debate over each one’s pros and cons continues.
Consumption of trans fats is shown to increase risk of coronary heart disease: the ratio of good and bad cholesterols in the bloodstream is negatively skewed, the amount of triglycerides (fats) in the bloodstream is increased, and system-wide inflammation is encouraged. Trans fat intake impacts the body’s ability to utilize essential fatty acids such as Omega 3s. It has been shown to promote obesity and abdominal fat deposition in animals, even when fed the same number of calories as the control. Trans fat intake has also been associated with the development of Type 2 Diabetes, including studies showing abnormally increased insulin levels after eating a trans fat-containing meal. Furthermore, as trans fats are so commonly found in highly processed foods, the health risks associated with such a diet, which is likely high in overall fat, sugar, and sodium, are only compounded by the trans fat.


So where does the consumer look to locate trans fats? Among others: processed snack cakes, frostings, peanut butters, chocolates, candies, fried foods, chips, even bread. Ultimately however, it’s the ingredients label that is your best guide: key words include partially hydrogenated oil and hydrogenated oil. Pay particular notice to partially hydrogenated. Scanning the ingredients list is essential as certain labelling laws regarding trans fat vary. For example, in Canada trans fat labelling is mandatory even below 0.2g per serving. In Australia, the UK, France, and Germany labelling is entirely optional, whereas other countries such as Denmark, Austria, and Switzerland mandate that trans fats may not exceed 2% of the total fat content. In the US, labelling is mandatory, however foods containing less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving can be labelled as trans fat-free. As serving sizes are distorted and even trace trans fats are hazardous, consumers must take initiative.

Finally, trans fats can be found naturally occurring in animal products from ruminants such as cows, specifically meat and dairy. For example, 1 cup of 2% milk contains 0.2g of naturally occurring trans fat. These natural trans fats, rather than those artificially produced through hydrogenation, include vaccenic acid and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA is sold as a health supplement and has been promoted as able to aid in reduction of body fat. Vaccenic acid is itself a precursor to CLA and some studies have suggested it to have beneficial health effects. Overall, however, the research, particularly in humans, is limited and governing bodies maintain that all trans fat intake should be kept at a minimum.

Search your food labels for these dirty ingredients!


Trans fats (i.e. hydrogenated vegetable oil) are often artificially produced and can be found in ice cream, shelf-stable pastries, fried foods, cheese and milk. Problematically, those with diets high in consumption of trans fats show decreased cardiovascular health and increased inflammation, obesity, and insulin sensitivity – making it important to avoid consumption of this additive. Many countries have enforced a ban on trans fats; recently California has prohibited their use in restaurants and food establishments.

The Journal of Nutrition
European Journal of Clinical Nutrition
The New England Journal of Medicine
Danish Health and Medicines Authority


Potassium bromate is found in bread-flour and flour-containing foods where it is used to treat and improve bread dough. Problematically, potassium bromate is potentially carcinogenic and has been shown to induce DNA mutations in rats. Other studies elucidate the damaging effects of potassium bromate on white blood cells, kidney function and hearing capacity. If bread is not cooked sufficiently, residual potassium bromate may remain. Because of its danger, potassium bromate has been prohibited from food in the EU, Canada, Brazil, and China. Consumers within the United States and other countries allowing the use of potassium bromate should be cautious as to their consumption of this chemical.

Mutation Research/Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis
Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery
Environmental Health Perspectives
OEHHA Office of Environment Health Hazard Assessment


Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) contains the atomic element bromine and is used to solubilize citrus oils within soft drinks. In the United States, the use of BVO has been limited to 15ppm although it is currently still used in Mountain Dew, Powerade, and Fanta Orange among other drinks. Excess consumption of BVO notes adverse effects as consumers have reported memory loss, tremors, fatigue, loss of coordination, and headache that were reversed upon removal of bromine from within the body. Avoid BVO consumption whenever possible.

Food Chemistry
The New York Times


Propyl gallate is an antioxidant that prevents the oxidation of foods containing oils and fats. One study conducted in 2009 found that propyl gallate may inhibit the action of estrogen – causing problematic effects by disrupting regulation of the body’s hormone levels. As a result, the study recommends caution in the use of the additive. Consumption of propyl gallate has also been associated with stomach and skin irritability in addition to allergic reactions – making it an important chemical to avoid.

Chemical Research in Toxicology


While BPA (bisphenol-A) is a synthetic compound found in plastic containers, it has been found to leak into the foods and liquids located within. BPA acts similarly to estrogen within the body – binding to the estradiol receptor. Having hormone modulating effects, BPA has been shown to induce harmful concerns in animals – lowering the age of puberty onset, disrupting sexual organ development and increasing the risk of cancer. In addition to this, BPA may also interfere with the thyroid gland – one of the centers of metabolic regulation. As a result, the US FDA has removed BPA from use, but this chemical still remains within Canada and the EU. To avoid harmful side effects, be cautious as to the use and purchase of packaging containing BPA.

CHIMIA International Journal for Chemistry
Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science
Journal of Health Science

Search your food labels for these dirty ingredients!


Artificial sweeteners are ubiquitous and include aspartame, stevia, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium all of which are 200 to 600 times sweeter than traditional sugar. While often considered useful in reducing sugar cravings, hesitate to consume artificial sweeteners as they have been shown to influence and increase appetite – particularly in children. As these additives do not satiate the body’s demand for traditional carbohydrates, unsatisfied consumers search out additional food – causing problematic weight gain. In particular, studies on acesulfame potassium have found that fetal or infant exposure influences a child’s later sweetness preferences. Acesulfame potassium bears carcinogenic, mutagenic, and hormonal effects upon high levels of consumption making it especially essential to avoid.

Europe PubMed Central
European Food Safety Authority
Journal of Ethnopharmacology
Chemical Senses


Manufacturers include artificial colorings in common food products to boost their appeal. However, many of these dyes have been found to be potentially carcinogenic in humans. Citrus Red 2, Fast Green FCF, Indigotine, Sunset Yellow FCF, and Tartrazine are just a few of the names to be avoided. Fast Green FCF, for example, disrupts bone marrow function and interferes with brain tissue DNA in animal studies. Food dyes have also been associated with diarrhea and gastrointestinal enlargement. Tartrazine, in particular, should be avoided as it has been shown to activate estrogen receptors – increasing the possibility of developing breast or uterine cancers. Because of the problems associated with artificial coloring, select dyes have been banned from the UK and even the EU.

Toxicology Data Network
Food and Cosmetics Toxicology
Food and Cosmetics Toxicology 2
The Journal of Pediatrics

Sodium benzoate is a food preservative produced from a reaction of sodium hydroxide with benzoic acid. This chemical inhibits bacterial and fungal development and is often found in salad dressings, carbonated drinks, jams, fruit juices, and condiments. Unfortunately, sodium benzoate has been linked to hyperactive behavior in children. Most problematically, sodium benzoate combines with ascorbic acid to form benzene – a known carcinogen. While foods containing the two chemicals, such as Coca Cola, have been found to have a safe dosage of benzene, heat, light, and shelf life can modulate the amount of benzene formed in food making this additive important to abstain from.



Refined sugars include sucrose, or table sugar, as well as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Excessive intake of these ubiquitously found sugars has been shown to induce metabolic abnormalities including insulin resistance, colorectal cancer, and nutritional deficiency. Sugar intake may also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Excessive consumption of HCFS should be avoided at all costs as it has been found to induce additional metabolic issues including high blood pressure and can impair leptin – an appetite suppressing hormone. Consumers with a high-fructose diets have been shown to have increased cholesterol levels.

Europe PubMed Central
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
The Journal of Pediatrics
American Heart Association
International Journal of Cancer
Journal of the National Cancer Institute

BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) are food preservatives used for their antioxidant capacities. Addition of BHA and BHT to foods like breakfast cereals, oats, processed meats and ready-to-eat meals prevents spoilage and rancidity of the fats and oils contained within the products. However, the use of BHT and BHA has been associated with increased cancer risk in addition to an increased risk of birth defects. Particularly, animal studies show that these chemicals interact with the liver to impair its function. It has been suspected that these chemicals act as toxicants to several bodily organs resulting in strict regulation of the usage of BHT and BHA by the EU and the Food and Drug Administration. Avoid BHT and BHA consumption whenever possible.

American Oil Chemists’ Society
Food and Chemical Toxicology
Food and Chemical Toxicology