Tartrazine is a synthetic dye that is added to an astonishing range of foods and beverages to impart a bright yellow color. It is also used with blue dyes to make green. In North America, tartrazine is also identified as FD & C Yellow 5. In the European Union, it's usually identified as E102.
What kinds of foods can contain tartrazine? At one time or another, most manufacturers of corn chips/crisps, corn flakes, yellow cake mixes, microwaveable popcorn, paella mixes, risotto mixes, gummy bears, yellow marshmallow treats, yellow gelatins, cucumber pickles, lemonade, lemon juice, lemon curd, instant broths, and instant soups have added tartrazine to bring out brilliant yellow colors. Pickle relish manufacturers sometimes use tartrazine to brighten up a “slimy” green that cucumbers show when they have been heat-treated. Kraft macaroni dinners were until recently colored with tartrazine. The chemical is still added to mango, apricot, and peach nectars in some parts of the world.
What's the problem with tartrazine? Many people who are allergic to aspirin are also allergic to tartrazine. Drinking a juice colored with tartrazine or eating a food colored with it, or even just getting a splash of juice colored with the dye on the skin, can cause hives. There are also people in whom an autoimmune response is triggered by tartrazine, manifesting itself as blurred vision, attention deficit, migraines, hot flashes, uncontrollable itching, or purple patches on the skin, most people suffering one or two but not all of these symptoms of autoimmune sensitivity.
Are you likely to have an issue with tartrazine? The bottom line is, probably not. Only about 1 in 1000 people has any kind of unfavorable reaction to this dye, but for that 1 in 1000, the problems it causes can be severe. It usually is not the sole cause of allergic symptoms but rather the “last straw” for an overworked immune system that also has been exposed to:
- Aspirin itself. People who take so much aspirin that they experience stomach upset injure the linings of the digestive tract so that more tartrazine gets into circulation.
- Aspirin-like compounds naturally occurring in food. The chemical cousins of tartrazine occur in curry powder, turmeric, raisins, prunes, paprika, peppermint, licorice, oregano, and dill.
- Aspartame. The effects of yellow dye and artificial sweetener can be additive.
- Pudding. Pudding mixes often include yellow dye.
- Vanilla, cinnamon, or menthol flavors or aromatics, either consumed in food or used on the skin. Cinnamon-scented skin care products can produce additive effects with foods or drinks colored with yellow dye.
And the antihistamine you take for your symptoms may also contain yellow dye.
Food manufacturers know that yellow dye can cause problems, so they have been switching to beta-carotene (E160a), which can be added to “organic” foods, and annatto (E160b). Several countries in the European Union have gone so far as to ban tartrazine, but the EC forced them to reinstate its use. The United States requires manufacturers who use tartrazine to label it clearly on all products, and to have FDA-supervised pre-testing of the dye before it is used. The United Kingdom has called on food manufacturers to voluntarily phase out use of the dye, and most have complied.
In much of the world, however, the best way to know for sure that your fruit or vegetable juice does not contain tartrazine is to make it yourself. Over 100 nations have no regulatory standard for this potentially hazardous dye.