Most “natural” food coloring is vegan, as they are derived from plants. The only exception is carmine (a.k.a cochineal), which is made from bugs.
But the most common type of food coloring that you’ll see in food are artificial colors; this includes names like Red 40, Blue 1, and so on. Artificial colors are controversial among vegans.
In this post, I’m going to look at if the 8 most common artificial dyes that you’ll come across are vegan or not.
Note that of these 8, three of them are much more popular than the rest: red 40, yellow 5, and yellow 6.
Animal Testing and Artificial Food Coloring
All of these “artificial” colors are either made in commercial labs from isolated chemicals, or derived from a byproduct of petroleum.
Given that, you’d think that all of them would be vegan.
The big ethical issue is that these dyes are all routinely tested on animals ranging from mice and rats to dogs.
Note that the testing isn’t by the food manufacturers that use these colors as ingredients. Instead, the testing is conducted by researchers to try to prove the safety or danger of them.
This is why it’s such a tricky issue. The animal testing isn’t technically necessary, although it seems it will continue into the future.
Is All the Animal Testing Done? Or Will It Continue?
For some ingredients, animal testing is done at the beginning to verify the safety of the ingredient, and then doesn’t need to be repeated. Things like aspartame were tested on animals many years ago, but not so much today.
The difference between ingredients like those and artificial colors is that artificial colors have been linked to one or more serious health side effects. Some are banned in European countries.
Because of that, they are still routinely tested in study after study. I took a very quick look for recent studies involving red 40 and easily found 3 from the last few years involving animal testing:
- A 2017 study tested red 40 on mice.
- A 2018 study tested the effects of red 40 on rats.
- Another 2017 study tested red 40 using bovine serum (from cows).
And that’s just for red 40, but the same goes for other artificial dyes.
Bottom line: Because of the controversial health effects these colors are linked to, they will continue to be regularly tested on animals for the foreseeable future.
We’ll look at each one individually, but that alone should be enough for ethical vegans to conclude that artificial colors are not vegan.
Perhaps they will be one day, but if so, it’s far off.
Avoiding Artificial Colors May Not Reduce Animal Testing
The logic behind a lot of veganism is that if you don’t buy a product because it has animal products in it, it reduces the demand, which is felt by the product manufacturer.
The confusing part with artificial colors is that the animal testing is only loosely correlated with consumption.
As long as there’s a certain minimum amount of demand worldwide, the animal testing will likely continue.
So even if you boycott products with artificial colors and they make/sell less, that won’t animal testing until a huge percentage of other people also do that.
What does all this mean?
It means that realistically, consuming or not consuming artificial colors likely won’t make a difference in the treatment of animals in the foreseeable future. So even if you consume them, it doesn’t make you not vegan in my eyes.
Is Blue 1 Vegan? (E133)
Blue #1, also known as Brilliant Blue, is produced using an oxidation reaction in a commercial lab setting.
It’s typically found in ice cream, cotton candy, soup packets, icing, and soft drinks. Additionally, it’s sometimes mixed with yellow dyes to produce green colors.
Brilliant Blue has been tested on mice, rats, and dogs over the years. In the case of dogs, they were fed the dye in their diet to find the maximum ingestion amount before it caused death.
It’s linked to allergic reactions, particularly in those with dermatitis.
Verdict: Blue #1, or Brilliant Blue, is not vegan.
Is Blue 2 Vegan? (E132)
Blue #2, also known as Indigo Carmine, is an organic salt used both in the U.S. and E.U. It’s used in candy, pet food, and certain beverages.
Don’t confuse this with “carmine,” which is a “natural” food coloring made from beetles (also red, not blue).
Blue 2 has been tested on mice, rats, and dogs. Even less than 150 grams of it can be fatal. Of course you wouldn’t get close to that in food, but it shows it’s quite potent.
Verdict: Blue #2, or Indigo Carmine, is not vegan.
Is Citrus Red 2 Vegan? (E121)
Citrus Red 2 is another artificial dye that adds a red or dark orange color to foods. It’s most commonly used to color the peel of oranges.
If you want to avoid citrus red #2, and still consume oranges, you have 4 options:
- Drink orange juice, it’s never used for those oranges (not permitted).
- Eat oranges from California or Arizona where it’s not allowed. It’s only used for Florida oranges.
- If you have to buy Florida oranges, buy them early in the citrus season. It’s only used when nights are cold and prevent oranges from naturally developing a good color.
- Buy organic oranges. The USDA doesn’t allow food dyes to be used.
Verdict: Citrus Red #2 is not vegan.
Is Green 3 Vegan? (E143)
Green #3, also known as Fast Green, has been tested on rats, mice, and dogs. Dogs were fed high doses for 2 years to determine side effects.
Studies have linked Fast Green to tumor growth.
You’ll typically find Green 3 in candy, cosmetics (like lipsticks), ice cream, and drgus.
Verdict: Green #3, or Fast Green, is not vegan.
Is Red 3 Vegan? (E127)
Red #3, also known as Erythrosine, is used not only in food (like sausage casins and candy), but also medication, printing ink, and dentistry.
It’s a red substance, but don’t confuse it with red #4, which is carmine, and made from insects. Since that’s a “natural” coloring, it doesn’t have its own section on this page.
Verdict: Red #1, or Erythrosine, is not vegan.
Is Red 40 Vegan? (E129)
This is perhaps the most popular artificial food coloring, found in many products that are red, like bacon bits.
Originally Red #40, or Allura Red was made from coal tar. Now it’s mostly made from petroleum.
You’ll mainly find it sodas, candy, cereals, bakery goods, and medication.
It’s mainly tested on mice and rats, but also on caterpillars, and using bovine serum. Studies have shown that it can cause DNA damage depending on the level ingested.
Finally, it’s been linked to behavioral issues in children.
Verdict: Red 40, is not vegan.
Is Yellow 5 (Tartrazine) Vegan? (E102)
Yellow #5, or Tartrazine, is a popular yellow coloring made from petroleum products.
It’s found in bakery products, candy, cereals, and cosmetics, among other products.
Yellow 5 is tested mainly on mice and rats, who are promptly killed at the end of the study.
Verdict: Yellow #5, or Tartrazine, is not vegan.
Is Yellow 6 Vegan? (E110)
Finally, Yellow #6 is also very popular, known as Sunset Yellow as well.
You’ll find it in the same sorts of things as yellow 5. Mainly cereals, beverages, candy, cosmetics, and bakery goods.
Verdict: Yellow #6, or Sunset Yellow, is not vegan.
An Aside: Are Artificial Colors Even Safe to Eat?
The 3 most popular artificial colors (red 40, and yellow 5/6) all contain benzidene, a human and animal carcinogen.
In low amounts it doesn’t appear to cause cancer, but eat enough of it and it could.
Besides that, we’ve looked at how each one of these dyes are linked to common potential side effects. It’s not that all chemicals are unsafe, but these ones are sketchy at best.
Personally, I wouldn’t want to eat them even if I wasn’t vegan.
Additionally, there are plant-based dyes that are just as good and proven to be safer. It might be less convenient for companies to use them, or a bit more expensive, but I’d rather support companies who opt to be on the safe side for their customers.
Summary: Which Artificial Colorings Are Vegan Friendly?
No popular artificial dye is vegan in my opinion due to the extensive past and ongoing animal testing associated with them, that’s why I pass on the cotton candy (or other junk food).
That’s my personal judgement, but I don’t speak for all vegans.
I’ve tried to lay out all the facts I came across, with many links to credible studies and resources.
With all that said, hopefully you can make your own decision on whether or not you consider artificial colors to be vegan.