Food coloring plays an important role in the production of food items because the visual presentation of food is involved with both recognition and satisfaction. When it comes to food coloring, one of the most widely used food coloring dyes is Red 40 – a red azo dye used to give food and beverages a red color.
Although Red 40 is a synthetic dye that does not make use of any animal-derived product, Red 40 can only be considered dietarily vegan. Due to some factors associated with Red 40, there are some vegans who prefer to forego products that use Red 40: (A) vegans who only consume food that has undergone no (or minimal) processing and (B) vegans who abstain from products that have undergone animal testing.
Red 40 is a food color additive that manufacturers use to control the color of their products. Specifically, Red 40 makes food the color red.
The food coloring dye also comes with other names such as Allura Red AC, FD&C Red 40, Food Red 17, Cosmetic Ingredient 16035, and E129.
A synthetic azo dye, the chemical structure of Red 40 makes this compound soluble in water as well as having a dark red color. Under a spectrophotometer, its absorbance is about 504 nm which appropriately puts the compound in the range of the red color spectrum.
For dietary vegans, Red 40 is perfectly suitable to consume since the food coloring dye does not use any animal products in its production – the synthesis of Red 40 uses raw materials from petroleum.
However, due to the diversity of the vegan community, there are some who would be okay with Red 40 while some would consider the food coloring additive as non-vegan.
Firstly, there are vegans who prefer their food to have undergone minimal to no refinement or processing. These are the people who advocate for farm-to-table food items. Unfortunately, synthetic food coloring agents are made in the laboratory which is not ideal for these types of vegans.
Secondly, ethical vegans avoid synthetic food coloring agents such as Red 40 because it has undergone animal testing. Aside from food coloring dyes, these people also abstain from other products that have undergone animal testing such as cosmetics and some household products.
With so many studies conducted evaluating and assessing it, Red 40 is generally considered to be safe.
Requested by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), a study found that Red 40 tested negative for a battery of genotoxicity assays such as the bone micronucleus assay and the Comet assay in the liver, stomach, and colon. The data was also reviewed by the Joint WHO/FAO Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) (1).
The FDA has also concluded Red 40 to be safe, making it one of the nine certified color additives to be used for food along with Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red, 2, Red 3, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. Aside from what types of food it can be added to, the FDA also regulates how much additive can be included in the product.
Having its own set of standards, the US Environmental Protection Agency also lists Red 40 to be “verified to be of low concern based on experimental and modeled data (2).”
Other safety authorities around the world that have evaluated and approved the safety of Ref 40 include Scientific Committee on Food (SCF; 1975, 1984, 1989), the National Toxicology Program (NTP; 2000), and Nordic Working Group on Food Toxicology and Risk Assessment (NNT; 2002) (3).
When it comes to red food color additives, experts say that Red 40 is among the safest. This is a reason why the use of Red 40 has been increasing as many manufacturers have been switching out Red 2 and Red 3 for the safer Red 40.
While some people report having allergic reactions to products with Red 40, this proves difficult to pinpoint because products that use Red 40 would also typically come with other food additives. Regardless, food safety authorities are always monitoring reports of these cases.
The manufacturing process of Red 40 uses raw materials obtained from petroleum (4). Specifically, Red 40 is manufactured by coupling diazotized p-cresidine sulfonic acid (5-amino-4-methoxy-2-toluenesulphonic acid) to Shaeffer’s salt (6-hydroxy-2-naphthalene sulphonic acid). The product of the coupling is then purified and isolated as a sodium salt (5).
To ascertain the safety of food coloring dyes for general commerce and public consumption, food safety authorities such as the FDA require synthetic food dyes to undergo a battery of tests to be certified and approved. Unfortunately, these tests involve the use of animal models. A popular food coloring agent such as Red 40 has been documented to be used on a wide array of animals.
The vegan community strongly believes that animal testing is a cruel and unethical practice and researchers have been slowly adopting other methods for safety testing that do not use animal models such as in vitro assays (i.e., that use cell models instead of animal models) and in silico studies (i.e., that use computer models).
With red being a highly popular color for food, it comes as no surprise that Red 40 is used in a wide range of food products.
While a list of specific brand name products containing Red 40 would be too long and comprehensive, Red 40 is typically found in common products one would find in a grocery such as candies, sodas, sports drinks, juices, packaged snacks, breakfast cereals, baking mixes, baked goods, pastries, fruit bars, snack chips, and more.
The easiest way to determine whether a product contains Red 40 would be to check the ingredient list of the product. The FDA requires food manufacturers to list all ingredients on the label, including food coloring dyes (13).
While there are some food coloring agents that are considered exempt from the FDA certification that can collectively be listed as “artificial colors,” “color added,” “artificial color added,” Red 40 has to be explicitly labeled since it is an FDA certified color additive.