Many midlife American women suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) issues. In fact, more women than men in the United States suffer from certain gut problems, with some studies suggesting that women’s GI systems behave differently partly because of “sex-related features in the brain.”
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, collectively referred to as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), are characterized by inflammation of the GI tract. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, persistent diarrhea, weight loss, and fatigue.
Now, a December 2022 study published in Nature Communications claims there’s a common food ingredient in the United States that might trigger IBD.
This Common Food Dye Could Be The Culprit
While the causes of IBD haven’t yet been pinned down, possible culprits include genetic factors, dysregulated immune responses, and environmental factors. One environmental factor, in particular, is the typical American diet: red and processed meats, lack of fiber, sugar—and red food dye.
Allura Red (AR) food dye, also known as FD&C Red 40 and Food Red 17, is a synthetic dye made from petroleum. It’s long been a commonly used ingredient in the American diet. It shows up in foods like cereal, pastries, fruit bars, dairy products, condiments, candy, soft drinks, and more.
It’s an FDA-approved dye for food, drugs, and cosmetics (even cosmetics meant to be used around the eye area). Research suggests it’s one of, if not the most widely-used artificial food dye in grocery store items.
You may have heard of the potential link between red food dye and ADHD in some children. Red Dye No. 2 was even banned in the U.S. in 1976 after a Russian study linked it to cancer, a connection that’s never been fully proven or disproven.
However, research regarding AR’s effect on gut health has been lacking in recent years. This new study has changed that, finding evidence of a link between the two.
The Potential Dangers Of Allura Red
The study, conducted by McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, found that Allura Red can cause inflammation and increase serotonin in the gut (leading to colitis). It can also affect certain allergies, immune disorders, and behavioral problems in children.
Senior author Waliul Khan, Ph.D., along with a team of researchers, studied the effects of common food colorants (including AR) on serotonin production in mice. The mice were then split into three different groups and fed either a standard diet, a diet that included AR every day, or a diet that included AR once a week.
Following 12 weeks of these diets plus a buffer week afterward, the mice were exposed to a chemical to induce colitis. The mice that only consumed AR once a week didn’t appear to have an increased susceptibility to colitis, but the ones who consumed AR on a daily basis developed mild colitis. This led to worsened intestinal nutrient absorption along with a boost in serotonin levels.
Furthermore, the researchers did a similar study on four-week-old mice and found that early AR exposure induced low-level colonic inflammation.
As Dr. Khan told Science Daily, “What we have found is striking and alarming, as this common synthetic food dye is a possible dietary trigger for IBD. This research is a significant advance in alerting the public on the potential harms of food dyes that we consume daily.”
It’s important to note these foods do not cause IBD but exacerbate IBD symptoms. More research with human subjects at clinical and experimental levels is needed to further explore the link between IBD and Allura Red food dye.
If you suffer from GI issues, your healthcare provider can help you make decisions about lifestyle changes.
However, while some GI issues can be mitigated by certain foods and drinks, IBD is a serious medical condition. You should consult your healthcare team to help you decide the best action plan for you.