When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I started to get hives. All over my legs and arms. Many, many times. My mother finally became convinced that this allergic reaction was due to artificial fruit flavorings. For me that meant, no strawberry milk, no Juicy Fruit gum, no fruit-flavored candies. This went on for some time and then, I guess, I outgrew it. In my teens, I ate raspberry Tootsie Pops and Twizzlers without incident.
About ten years ago, I got the flu and I took some cherry-flavored cough syrup. Shortly after dosing myself, I began to get hives. I called the manufacturer, demanding to get the list of ingredients. They would not give me the full list of ingredients, but they took down my name, contact information and symptoms. Someone from the FDA called me back and said it sounded like a Red Dye #40 allergy and that it was pretty common. I wasn’t a believer. I thought it was the fruit flavor that caused the problem.
A few months later, I was working late and getting hungry. A colleague offered me a yogurt-covered granola bar. Within minutes of eating it, I had hives behind my ears and down my neck. Security was called in and there was an energetic discussion around me as others tried to decide if I needed an ambulance. I read the label. Red Dye #40.
Since then, I have had several bad hive reactions. It is usually worse if my immune system is already depressed because of a cold or the flu. One episode lasted three weeks and I finally had to be on steroids to get rid of the hives. Thankfully, nothing worse has happened, but I’ve become hyper-vigilant about Red Dye #40 in my food. It’s in everything. I have since learned that many children have adverse behavioral reactions to Red Dye #40. In Europe, Red Dye #40 goes by the name Allura Red AC.
Red Dye #40 is an azo dye, so called because of the double nitrogen bond in the middle of the molecule. Azo dyes are made from petrochemicals. Yummy! So let’s just think about that for a moment! There are other azo dyes as well, notably two yellows (FD&C Yellow #5 and FD&C Yellow #6) that are approved for use in the USA. I have not noticed that I am allergic to these yellow dyes, but I do avoid them, albeit with less dedication.
Here are some fun places where you can find FD&C Red Dye #40 / Allura Red AC:
- Fruit-flavored candies and gum
- Fruit-flavored drinks
- Cough syrup and cough drops
- Campari, which switched from carmine to Red Dye #40 a few years ago
- Creme de Violette
- Maraschino cherries
- Box cake mix, including some yellow cake mixes and muffin mixes
- Chips/crisps with flavored coatings, such as Dorito’s or cheese-flavored chips
- Pill coatings, including Tylenol (the name is stamped on the caplet in red dye, but generic acetaminophen or paracetamol is usually okay), red caplets, pink-coated pills. I buy dye-free ibuprofen and question my pharmacist relentlessly about anything she gives me.
- Peppermints, including candy canes
- ‘Strawberry’ or ‘raspberry’ sauce
A few other tips:
- If someone serves you something you can’t eat, don’t trust them to start over. I’ve had a waiter serve me a drink with a cherry in it and, upon being reminded that I ordered it without a cherry because I am allergic to the cherry, they simply removed the cherry from the glass.
- Don’t trust the hospital dietary staff. The allergy was on my chart, but they sent me red gelatin anyway. A nurse tried to give me a reddish pill without checking the coating ingredients first. I have to tell my medical professionals and then I have to be vigilant on top of that. I am not shy about asking my doctor to have her nurse double-check the formulary when she writes me a prescription.
- At the dentist: the topical fruit-flavored anesthetic the dentist used had Red Dye #40 in it. Why? Who even sees that? Also, my dentist had to order special non-colored polishing grit for me. Double-check any toothpastes and mouthwashes, even flavored dental floss.
- Don’t eat products from commercial bakeries without checking the packaging and ask your friends who bake at home what mix they used. My own mother served me blueberry pie from the grocer’s freezer. I had it in my mouth and was starting to chew when I realized what I had done. My poor mom felt terrible! The point is that you have to take responsibility for yourself. If you don’t like asking about it, just don’t eat it. It’s easier. Just say, “No, thank you.”
As time goes by, I meet more and more people with Red Dye #40 allergies, so I know I’m not alone.
Have you found Red Dye #40 or Allura Red AC anywhere you weren’t expecting it? Please let me know!