Killing yourself softly with toxic food dyes | Inquirer Business
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Killing yourself softly with toxic food dyes

Artificial coloring makes any food product more appealing. Sweets like ice candy and gulaman are made more delectable and mouth-watering when they come in bright colors—red, orange and green. Even dried shrimp is made more appetizing with a reddish food coloring.

Unfortunately, some of the industrial dyes used for food coloring are actually toxic to the body. They may contain coloring dyes used in shoe or floor polish, and with chronic intake they can cause diseases like cancer.

In one of our e-mail exchanges concerning the various problems the Philippine Food and Drug Administration (PhilFDA) is addressing, Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go, the agency’s director general, said that it looks like  the problem could be more prevalent and serious as it may seem now.


The PhilFDA tested 34 samples of food products collected by inspectors in the National Capital Region and Cebu for these potentially toxic dyes, called nonpermissible colorants (NPCs). The samples were collected from ambulant vendors, public markets, groceries and supermarkets.



The inspectors reported that most of the samples were unregistered and noncompliant with food product labeling standards. Out of the 34 products collected, three tested positive for NPC rhodamine B, while another five needed further confirmatory tests for the presence of sudan dye, another NPC.

Because it is bright and fluorescent, rhodamine B is actually  used as a tracer substance in water and air-flow studies, and in molecular and cell biology experiments. It is also used in some instruments like fluorescence microscopy. In animal studies, it has been shown to be carcinogenic.

Industrial-grade sudan dye is likewise not permitted for use in food because they are  toxic and carcinogenic. It also contains poisonous metals like mercury and arsenic. Sudan dyes enhance the colors of shoe and floor polish, solvents, oils, waxes and gasoline. But only food manufacturers with no conscience can also mix it with food products.

It’s like killing oneself softly, if one takes food products containing these toxic dyes. Of course, one does not develop the cancer or its other serious complications immediately because the amount of the poisonous dye is not high enough to cause acute symptoms. But slowly, over a period of time, and with repeated intake of the harmful dyes, a predisposed individual could be at risk to  cancer and other health problems. And the poor victim would never suspect that the food coloring had something to do with it.

Lack of lab support


It’s really an insidious and menacing problem. “We should be doing more but we are tied down (by some constraints),” says Hartigan-Go. The PhilFDA is still hampered by the lack of laboratory support. “We have not tested [for] other chemical presence  in other geographical areas beyond Cebu,” laments the PhilFDA director.

The problem is likely not only prevalent in Cebu but all over the country. The PhilFDA advises that consumers buy   only processed food products  from legitimate food establishments and outlets. If they suspect that NPCs  have been used in some food products, they can report them  to the PhilFDA  immediately (

“Please read labels. Look for [Phil]FDA registration numbers. Ingredients should be indicated. Look for a consumer hotline. Check expiry dates. If in doubt, kindly contact and coordinate with the [Phil]FDA Field Food and Drug Regulatory Officers who will conduct inspection or sampling for testing,” says the PhilFDA advisory.

The PhilFDA has also requested the Centers for Health Development and local government units to help them implement the confiscation and recall of products with NPCs and with the closure of establishments selling them.

I suggest that even restaurants should also be issued a warning from serving any food preparation with any of these toxic dyes. It just occurred to me that the bright color of chili powder seems to be too good for it to be its natural color. Other spices and condiments might also have been adulterated with NPCs. And how about the  sweets we eat? Candies, cakes and ice creams? I hope not.

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The public should really be more careful when buying any of these food preparations. One should check the food labels, and if it says the manufacturer has used any food coloring, my personal recommendation is not to buy them. Unless you don’t mind killing yourself softly.

TAGS: Health, health and science, M.D., Medical Files, Rafael Castillo

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