Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
February 29, 2024 ·  5 min read

It was banned by the FDA, yet it’s in hundreds of candies. Why?

Artificial dyes are used just about everywhere: From packaging to clothing to cosmetics. And they are also used more often than you probably realize in food. Recently it has come to light that artificial food coloring such as Red No. 3, among others, is still often present in some foods like candy. This dye has already been banned in cosmetics due to its carcinogenic, aka cancer-causing, properties. So why is it still in so many food products? This is what you should know about artificial food coloring in your kids’ candies.

Potentially Carcinogenic Artificial Food Coloring Still Permitted In Food Products

Red No. 3 is one of the most infamous artificial food colorings. The FDA already banned it in the 1990s from cosmetics and externally applied drugs after scientists found that it caused cancer in rodent testing. Shortly after this, the FDA also said that they would take steps to ban it from food, ingested drugs, and supplements. This, however, never happened. For this reason, you can still find Red No. 3, along with other artificial food colorings, in hundreds of packaged candies, cakes, and other foods. This includes things like candy corn, Nerds, Peeps, Pez, SweeTarts, and plenty of other Halloween and holiday classics. (1)

The amount of products that you can find with Red No. 3 is actually quite shocking. Fruit by the Foot, Double Bubble, Little Bites, and Ding Dongs all contain the dye. Even products such as Betty Crocker’s Loaded Mashed Potatoes, Vigo Saffron Yellow Rice, and some PediaSure shakes have it as well. Animal studies show that, over a long-term period of time, consuming this artificial food coloring causes thyroid cancer.

The Delaney Clause

In 1958 and 1960, the government made amendments to the United States’ food laws that prohibits the approval of any food and color additive if it has shown to cause cancer in people or animals. It is called the Delaney Clause, named after congressman James Delaney. Despite this, Red No. 3, among others, is still found in so many food products. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), along with many prominent scientists and 23 other organizations, have filed a petition asking the FDA to ban Red No. 3 from any ingestible products.

“It’s outrageous that the Food and Drug Administration has known since the 1980s that Red 3 has the potential to cause cancer, but still allows it to be used in the food we eat,” said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at Environmental Working Group, one of the organizations that is part of the petition. “This is yet another glaring example of how the FDA has failed consumers when it comes to food safety.” 

CSPI President Dr. Peter Lurie couldn’t agree more.

“If the data were strong enough to ban Red 3 in cosmetics and external drugs 30 years ago, they’re surely strong enough to ban it today in foods, oral drugs, and dietary supplements.” he said.

What Is Red No. 3?

Red No. 3, also known as erythrosine, is the artificial food dye responsible for that bright red color you see in many candies and red treats such as popsicles. It can also be found in many other products, including pastries and breakfast cereals, to name a few. The FDA approved it for use in 1931, though they revoked its use in cosmetics and topical medications in 1990. As already mentioned, this is because scientists found the dye to cause cancer in mice in large doses. It has, however, remained approved in food products and orally delivered medications and supplements. (2)

Why Is It Allowed In The United States and Not Other Countries?

Currently what has many people so upset is the difference between the regulations for artificial food coloring such as Red No. 3 in the United States versus other countries. In the United States, food safety regulatory agencies use a risk-based approach to ingredient approvals. The risk of developing cancer from these dyes is small (1 in 100,000 over lifetime consumption) and so the risk is determined as minimal.

“Here in the U.S., food safety regulatory agencies utilize a risk-based approach and since the amounts of these ingredients in our food are negligible, they are not flagged as a reason to avoid them.” confirms registered Dietitian Rachel Fine.

Also, while it is common to assume that if something causes cancer in rats or other animals, it will do the same in humans, scientists remind us that this is not necessarily true.

“It’s important to remember that rats are very different than human beings, and some chemicals that are toxic to rats and other laboratory animals are not harmful to humans due to differences between the species,” said Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, medical toxicologist and co-medical director of the National Capital Poison Center. “toxicity studies in laboratory animals often involve the use of very high doses of chemicals, much larger than would be expected after human exposure. Since rats are much smaller than humans, these high doses correspond to exposures that would never be encountered by most humans.”

Poor Absorption In Humans

Scientists also remind us that in humans, erythrosine actually has a very low absorption rate after consumption. According to Dr. Johnson-Arbor, the body doesn’t metabolize erythrosine when ingested, so only about 1% of any that you do consume is actually absorbed into the bloodstream. Rather, it is excreted in the feces unchanged. Johnson-Arbor says that, based on that, occasional consumption of products that contain the dye likely won’t be problematic.

Still, however, she agrees that reading your labels and avoiding regular consumption is probably a good idea. This, she says, isn’t so much about avoiding Red No. 3 or other artificial food coloring or additives, but rather about avoiding prepackaged food products in general. 

“Eat a well-balanced diet, and enjoy processed foods in moderation to avoid exposure to synthetic food dyes and other potentially dangerous chemicals,” she says.

Artificial Food Colorings Still Used In Food

The following is a list of food colorings that are still used in foods today (3):

  • Red No. 3 (Erythrosine): A cherry-red coloring commonly used in candy, popsicles and cake-decorating gels.
  • Red No. 40 (Allura Red): A dark red dye that is used in sports drinks, candy, condiments and cereals.
  • Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine): A lemon-yellow dye that is found in candy, soft drinks, chips, popcorn and cereals.
  • Yellow No. 6 (Sunset Yellow): An orange-yellow dye that is used in candy, sauces, baked goods and preserved fruits.
  • Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue): A greenish-blue dye used in ice cream, canned peas, packaged soups, popsicles and icings.
  • Blue No. 2 (Indigo Carmine): A royal blue dye found in candy, ice cream, cereal and snacks.

If you wish to avoid them, read your labels carefully. As Dr. Johnson-Arbor said, the less pre packaged and processed foods you eat, the easier it will be to avoid artificial ingredients.


  1. FDA says it causes cancer. Yet it’s in hundreds of candies.” Center for Science in the Public Interest. October 25, 2022.
  2. What Is Red No. 3 (Erythrosine) And Why It’s in Your Food?Eat This.  Desirée O. March 23, 2022
  3. Food Dyes: Harmless or Harmful?Healtline. Becky Bell, MS, RD. January 7, 2017.