Trick or Treat: Are the Food Colors in Halloween Candy Safe to Eat?

By: Liz Sanders, MPH/RD Student at UNC Chapel Hill Date: 10/31/13

What's spookier than Halloween? Misinformation! Discussions on the safety of food colors are prevalent in the media, especially around Halloween, when colorful sweets are enjoyed by costumed children and parents alike. Parents want straight answers on the safety of food colors (sometimes referred to as "artificial" or "man-made" food colors, food dyes, color additives, etc.) in Halloween candy, but unfortunately, a lot of media headlines on the topic are more confusing than they are informative. Here we unmask the science on the safety of food colors so that you can have a happy, informed Halloween.  

Are food colors safe?

The current scientific research shows food colors to be safe and not to cause adverse health effects. Food additives must receive FDA approval prior to being used in foods and beverages. Both the man-made and "natural" color additives in your child's package of candies are evaluated for safety on several different levels. Before a color additive is approved for use in foods and beverages, the FDA looks at the short and long-term health effects of its consumption, how much of the color additive would be consumed through all possible sources, any limitations to the use of the food color, and any other factor that may affect its safe use. You can see that the approval process for these colors is pretty rigorous! 

Food colors are added to a variety of foods; not just the candy and sweets we all enjoy. They include foods that also provide important nutrients (other than calories) to the diet, including some cheeses, yogurts, cereals, fruits, jams and jellies.  

What about food colors and AD/HD?

There has been a lot of buzz on this topic in the media, but (luckily for trick-or-treaters) the currently available science shows that consumption of artificial food colors does not cause or exacerbate AD/HD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder).  In fact, the 2011 FDA Food Advisory Committee reviewed all of the available science on the subject (including the most recent study suggesting a link) and determined that artificial food colors do not cause hyperactivity or AD/HD in children. Some studies have indicated that some children with AD/HD and a confirmed food allergy may be more sensitive to some ingredients, including food colors and other ingredients, and may benefit from eliminating those ingredients. However, changes to the diet should be supervised by a health professional to ensure adequate nutrition.  

There are also several choices available for those who prefer not to consume foods or beverages containing artificial food colors.  Both artificial and natural food colors are required to be listed in the ingredients list on the label. 

The bottom line: You can Have a safe, happy, and colorful Halloween! 

For a more in depth look at food colors and ADHD, check out our Q&A or our videos with perspectives on the science from qualified health professionals.