PSA: Food Dye Red No. 40 Should Be Avoided By Vegans. Here's Why

March 13, 2023

I mentioned in this article how I’ve been eating more meat substitutes, primarily since I moved to a new city. And so, I’ve been less conservative about eating processed foods, too. Last Friday, my brother picked up a box of red velvet cake mix because, when prepared with vegan eggs, there is no overt reason it shouldn’t be vegan. I made the cake with my sister-in-law and niece and took turns with my niece licking the batter spoon. It was a delightful time—but we soon realized something was off.

Red No. 40 is a known toxin

It is allergenic

Soon after eating our cake, my niece started complaining that her fingers and hands were burning. As we stared at the ingredient list on the box, we noted “red No. 40.” My sister immediately got my niece into a warm bath, while my brother and I took to the internet to learn more about this elusive food additive. Come to find out, there have been many reports of “red dye allergies,” including research carried out by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The study claims red 40 can cause allergic reactions in some people, such as hives and facial swelling, as well as hyperactivity in children. Ultimately, the researchers recommend avoiding consumption of red No. 40 until further testing can confirm safety.

In Europe, artificial food colorings such as red dye No. 40, yellow No. 5, and yellow No. 6 can be added to food products, but a warning must be included on the label indicating that these dyes may negatively affect activity and attention in children. However, in the United States, there is no such requirement for warning labels. Many of us here in America know our food labeling is lax at best, but this is disconcerting. Not only for the safety of the youngsters in our lives, but because red No. 40 isn’t vegan by my (and many others’) standards.

It is carcinogenic

Red-40 is a petroleum by-product that has been shown to be carcinogenic in animals. Meaning yes, it is tested on animals. And red dye 40 is controversial for its potential health risks. Ruth Winter, a science writer, reveals in her book that the National Cancer Institute reported that the chemical p-credine, used in the preparation of Red No. 40, is carcinogenic in animals and causes adverse reproductive effects in rats at high doses. Although such high doses are not found in grocery store items, there is concern that even small amounts of red dye 40 could cause various side effects in humans.

A note on animal testing

Personally, I perpetually struggle with my complicity in animal testing. But I’ve become less conservative in that sense, too. I used to only buy products from companies that do not test on animals and who are not owned by companies that test on animals. This requires a lot of time and energy, and as companies are always acquiring other companies, it requires on-going research.

Seventh Generation is a great example of this. Many assume they are an independent business, but Seventh Generation was acquired by Unilever in 2016. When I learned this, I tried to boycott Seventh Generation. But ultimately, I ended up spending more money trying out products that I didn’t like as much. Now, I am buying Seventh Generation again. Because I like to think that by doing so, I am signaling to Unilever that products like Seventh Generation should be the norm. But am I?

Am I complicit in animal testing by funneling money to Unilever? There is no way to know. As discussed here, spending too much time beating myself up for not being the “perfect vegan” can take a toll. So I try to be kind to myself, as we all should.

All that to say, though, red No. 40 should be avoided by vegans. It is tested on animals and hotly debated among food scientists and health professionals. In the U.K., food labels must contain warnings about the potential side effects, but we don’t have that in the States. So, check your ingredients, fellow dumplings. Avoiding carmine isn’t enough. Cereals, granola bars, candy, baked goods, jams and jellies are the most likely to contain red no. 40, but the risk doesn’t end there. It is up to us to ensure we are minimizing harm to the best of our ability.

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Photo: Luisana Zerpa via Unsplash

R. Coker
R. Coker is an animal lover, runner, writer and yogi. She is passionate about leaving the world better than she found it.


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