There is anecdotal evidence that people, particularly children, have presented allergy-type symptoms (breathing difficulties, gastrointestinal, or skin problems) after ingesting foods or contact with substances containing red dyes. But one of the more compelling medical studies picks on carmine, a natural red dye extracted from the dried bodies of a parasitic insect commonly found on prickly pear cacti. A twenty-seven-year-old woman went into anaphylactic shock after eating a red Popsicle containing carmine. This type of response is a true allergic reaction, and not a food intolerance, which is much more common. A skin-prick test confirmed an allergy to carmine.
If you have a hunch red dyes may be the source of your or your child’s health woes, it can be difficult to confirm which substance it may be. There are many red dyes, natural and artificial, and a skin test must be done on each to determine the culprit. It may be easier to eliminate red dyes completely to see if symptoms improve.
Sources of Red Dye
Since red dye is ubiquitous in the substance our bodies come in contact with every day, it’s vital to read labels carefully if you have red dye allergies or intolerances. Food colorings are even used in chocolate, marshmallows, bread, crackers, and cheese. Red dye in particular can be found in:
• Most processed foods, especially red candies
• Cosmetics, particularly lipsticks and blushes
• Over-the-counter medications, particularly cough and cold syrups
• Some prescription medications
• Markers, finger paints and Play-Doh
If you have or suspect a carmine allergy, look for this on package labels:
• Cochineal extract
• Natural Red #4
• Carminic Acid
Obviously, the best treatment option for red dye allergies is to avoid red dyes, whether artificial or naturally derived. A whole-foods diet, with no processed foods, is your best bet. Some brands of OTC cough and cold syrups, like Benadryl and Motrin, make dye-free formulas, and your local compounding pharmacist can create prescription medications free from dyes. And, pressure from consumer groups and the Feingold Association (which contends ADHD symptoms may improve with a dye- and additive-free diet) has led some manufacturers, like Frito-Lay and Starbucks, to either remove dyes from their products or use safer versions of natural ones.
If you have severe red dye allergies and accidentally come in contact with red dye, standard allergy treatments apply: a jab with an Epi-pen (or dose of antihistamine, if no Epi-pen is available) and a trip to the emergency room.
Photo courtesy of morgueFile.com, copyright © 2010 Darren Hester **(**https://www.darrenhester.com)
About.com/Allergies, “Could I Have A Red Dye Allergy?” https://allergies.about.com/od/preservativeallergy/f/foodcoloringallergy.htm
Allergic Child.com, “Food Dye Intolerance & Allergy” https://www.allergicchild.com/food_dye_allergies.htm
Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Allergy, University of Michigan: “Popsicle-induced anaphylaxis due to carmine dye allergy” https://www.med.umich.edu/intmed/allergy/carmine.htm