Scientists Warn Common Food Coloring May Trigger Inflammatory Bowel Diseases

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Researchers say that long-term consumption of Allura Red food coloring may be a potential trigger for inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. This food coloring is a common ingredient in candy, soft drinks, dairy products, and some cereals.

Scientists found that continued exposure to Allura Red AC impairs gut health and promotes inflammation.

Allura Red (also called FD&C Red 40 and Food Red 17), is a common ingredient in foods ranging from candy and soft drinks to dairy products and breakfast cereals.

According to Waliul Khan of McMaster University, long-term consumption of Allura Red food coloring may be a potential trigger for inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Using experimental animal models of IBD, the researchers found that continued exposure to Allura Red AC impairs gut health and promotes inflammation.

The dye directly disrupts intestinal barrier function and increases the production of serotonin, a hormone/neurotransmitter found in the intestine, which subsequently alters the composition of the intestinal microbiota and increases susceptibility to colitis.

waliul khan

Waliul Khan. Credit: McMaster University

Khan said Allura Red (also called FD&C Red 40 and Food Red 17) is a common ingredient in candy, soft drinks, dairy products and some cereals. The dye is used to add color and texture to food, often to appeal to children.

The use of synthetic food colors like Allura Red has increased significantly in recent decades, but there have been few previous studies on the effects of these colors on gut health. Khan and his team published their findings Dec. 20 in the journal

“The literature suggests that the consumption of Allura Red also affects certain allergies, immune disorders, and behavioral problems in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Khan said that IBDs are serious chronic inflammatory conditions of the human bowel that affect millions of people worldwide. While their exact causes are still not fully understood, studies have shown that dysregulated immune responses, genetic factors, gut microbiota imbalances, and environmental factors can trigger these conditions.

In recent years there has been significant progress in identifying susceptibility genes and understanding the role of the immune system and host microbiota in the pathogenesis of IBDs. However, similar advances in defining environmental risk factors have lagged, he said.

Khan said that environmental triggers for IBDs include the typical Western diet, which includes processed fats, red and processed meats, sugar, and a lack of fiber. He added that the Western diet and processed food also include large amounts of various additives and dyes.

He added that the study suggests a link between a commonly used food dye and IBDs and warrants further exploration between food dyes and IBDs at experimental, epidemiological, and clinical levels.

Reference: “Chronic exposure to synthetic food colorant Allura Red AC promotes susceptibility to experimental colitis via intestinal serotonin in mice” by Yun Han Kwon, Suhrid Banskota, Huaqing Wang, Laura Rossi, Jensine A. Grondin, Saad A. Syed, Yeganeh Yousefi, Jonathan D. Schertzer, Katherine M. Morrison, Michael G. Wade, Alison C. Holloway, Michael G. Surette, Gregory R. Steinberg and Waliul I. Khan, 20 December 2022, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-35309-y

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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