MITOXIC-Why eating artificial colors may not be good for any of us, especially mitochondrial disease patients

If you have been following this blog for a bit, you know that along this medical journey my family had been on, we have learned more about the impact of food on our health, then we could ever imagine. One of the “3 free” that I have focused our pantry purging efforts on has been Artificial Colors. These are the words with numbers commonly found on ingredient labels for ironically food aimed at being kid friendly: blue pop tarts, red licorice, green slime yogurt and day glo orange Popsicle.  From day one of serving our daughter table foods we have avoided these additives because at the time she was reacting neurologically and gastrointestinally to whole fruits and vegetables with their own God-given food coloring… Orange sweet potatoes, red strawberries, and purple grapes. Salicylates ( which you can read more about the technical details here) and naturally occurring colors such as reds and oranges in the fruits and veggies,  seemed to be a common link in her sensitivities. As she has continued to grow, we  have continued  to research why her body may not be able to tolerate these substances, all the while ridding our house of all the artificial colors ( and flavors) we could find ( for our health and the health of our older son).

And considering the UK and other European countries have studied the effects on behavior and removed many of these dyes from their food supply (and many American companies have changed their formulations for Europe, while not touching the same products sold in the USA), my gut says that it many not be a bad idea to continue on this artificial color hiatus around our house for the long-term (especially for our little one suspected of mitochondrial disease), because unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the consumption of this is going down, anytime soon, in the USA…do YOU dare to guess how many mg are consumed of artificial colors per person per day in 2012? Click here for some amazing numbers on hwo much of this STUFF is manufactured each year in the US. (there has been an 8.5million lb increase in the last DECADE).

Thanks to the Feingold Association for this graphic showing the dosage effect of artificial colors on children's response in double-blind studies.

A few pathetic examples of how companies are changing their products in other countries, from this story:

For example, CSPI says McDonald’s Strawberry Sundaes get their color from fresh strawberries. The group says in the United States the color comes from Red dye 40. CSPI say in the UK, Fanta orange soda coloring comes from pumpkins and carrot extract. Here, it says the color comes from Red 40 and Yellow 6 dye.

Or this one: (photo of nutrigrain bars in the US and Canada…one with dyes, one without..can you guess which one contains the DYE?)


TWO THROUGH AND EXTENSIVE publications from the Center for Science in the Public Interest on the health effects of food dyes:

Diet, ADHD, and Behavior

Food Dyes a Rainbow of Risks

For those of you who are looking for the “proof in the day-glo pudding” read on….

For those of you who’s eyes glaze over with the thoughts of high school chemistry here is the take home message: ARTIFICIAL COLORS INHIBIT MITOCHONDRIAL RESPIRATION:

Effect of organic synthetic food colours on mitochondrial respiration.

Eleven organic synthetic dyes, currently or formerly used as food colours in Brazil, were tested to determine their effect on mitochondrial respiration in mitochondria isolated from rat liver and kidney. The compounds tested were: Erythrosine, Ponceau 4R, Allura Red, Sunset yellow, Tartrazine, Amaranth, Brilliant Blue, Blue, Fast Red E, Orange GGN and Scarlet GN. All food colours tested inhibited mitochondrial respiration (State III respiration, uncoupled) supported either by alpha-ketoglutarate or succinate. This inhibition varied largely, e.g. from 100% to 16% for Erythrosine and Tartrazine respectively, at a concentration of 0.1 mg food colour per mitochondrial protein. Both rat liver and kidney mitochondria showed similar patterns of inhibition among the food colours tested. This effect was dose related and the concentration to give 50% inhibition was determined for some of the dyes. The xanthene dye Erythrosine, which showed the strongest effect, was selected for further investigation on mitochondria in vivo.

 Editors note- Erythrosine is Red #3

MITOCHONDRIAL RESPIRATION is a fancy scientific name for the process in which our bodies (in our mitochondria) CONVERT FOOD into ENERGY to run our organs and our selves. In other words if you INHIBIT that process…then you INHIBIT ENERGY production… and I am guessing you can figure out what that means for your organs and your body…energy failure= organ shutdown.

Now many will argue that the amount of artificially color in foods is not enough to hurt you (to the point of organ failure)…and I may agree on 2 accounts a)IF you are not ingesting the toxic threshold for your body and your genetics and b) IF all your mitochondria are working at 100%… maybe eating this stuff every day will slightly disrupt your energy production and you will be no worse the wear (except after YEARS and YEARS of eating this stuff every day, perhaps?)….but for the children and adults who suffer from mitochondrial disease (whose mitochondria are not functioning at 100%) then ingesting artificial colors every day can, as you would suspect, have a greater effect on their energy production, than a normal, healthy person’s. Couple that with a mito patient who may have GI issues, increased stomach permeability, infections or be immune compromised even further, and perhaps hospitalized following a surgery, infection or metabolic crisis (thus demanding even more of their energy) and the effect of this dye could be even greater (as is noted in the journal article below where it is implemented in death of 2 older patients (not diagnosed with mito but who were compromised by sepsis).

So if you want the Science… keep reading.  If you have read enough…do ONE thing…become aware…do your own experiment…give your kids artificial colors one week and see what happens, then try a week of “artificial color free” and see if you can see a difference? Be a detective..this stuff is everywhere food, vitamins, prescription meds, drinks….everywhere!


Here are some of the most common ARTIFICIAL COLORS chemical structures:

Red 40

Yellow 5 (Feingold info)

Yellow 6

Red and Yellow dyes are AZO Dyes (look in the middle of each compound for the N=N bond)  and here is the research between AZO dyes and the mitochondria:

Cancer Res. 1969 Jun;29(6):1288-97.

Effect of feeding amino azo dyes on mitochondrial swelling and contraction. Kinetic evidence for deletion of membrane regulatory sites.


Cancer Res. 1969 Jun;29(6):1298-305.

Sequential alterations in mitochondrial inner and outer membrane electron transport and in respiratory control during feeding of amino azo dyes; stability of phosphorylation. Correlation with swelling-contraction changes and tumorigenesis threshold.


J Biophys Biochem Cytol. 1960 Feb;7:49-60.

Fine structural alterations in cell particles during chemical carcinogenesis. II. Further evidence for their involvement in the mechanism of carcinogenesis. The swelling of rat liver mitochondria during feeding of amino azo dyes.


Swelling under carefully controlled conditions has been used to study alterations in the structure of rat liver mitochondria as a result of feeding azodyes. The changes of the swelling properties of the mitochondria during feeding of the hepatocarcinogenic 3′-methyl-4-dimethylaminoazobenzene are essentially comparable to those observed previously with the microsomes, under the same dietary conditions. These alterations in mitochondrial swelling are not related to changes in the amount of these cell particulates per unit weight of tissue, during feeding of this azo dye. As with the microsomes, feeding of the isomeric but relatively noncarcinogenic 2-methyl-4-dimethylaminoazobenzene does not affect swelling. The structural differences between liver and hepatoma mitochondria show up not only in the rate and extent of swelling but also in the form of the curves of pH dependence. The influence of ketones and sulfhydryl compounds on the swelling of normal liver mitochondria were studied, with particular emphasis to the role of sulfhydryl groups in membrane permeability. The sudden steep rise in the tumor incidence in groups of rats fed 3′-methyl-4-dimethylaminoazobenzene for increasing intervals of time occurs at about 4 weeks. This time correlates with the point of the minimum swelling of microsomes and mitochondria isolated from the livers of rats fed this same dye. Thus, a correlation is established between the alterations of the swelling properties of these particulates and the carcinogenic process.

Blue 1- aka Brilliant Blue

And here is some of the literature references showing their ill effects on our bodies and those of CRITICALLY ILL patients. This article tells of 2 patients who DIED when their bodies went into metabolic lactic acidosis and the patients died, after being given Blue No1 in their enteral nutrition formulations (aka tube feeding).

Toxicity of Food Drug and Cosmetic Blue No. 1 Dye in Critically Ill Patients*

There is reason to incriminate FD&C Blue No. 1 as a potential cause of metabolic derangement or even death in patients with sepsis. In vitro analyses demonstrate dose-dependent inhibition of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation by FD&C Blue No. 1, an effect that would, like other mitochondrial poisons (eg, cyanide), lead to increased reliance on anaerobic metabolism for the formation of adenosine triphosphate required for normal organ function. As such, systemic absorption of the dye is expected to cause metabolic (lactic) acidosis and undermine the function of vital organs. It follows that the toxic effects of FD&C Blue No. 1 would be amplified in the context of an underlying metabolic derangement, such as has been observed during sepsis. This hypothesis may explain the sudden, fatal decompensation of the septic patients presented herein.

Here is MORE about the effects of blue dye on critically ill patient (leading to death) and an image of a blue colon (be forewarned the photo is graphic).

And HERE is the 2003 FDA Warning about Blue #1 stating:

in vitro evidence that Blue 1 can be a mitochondrial toxin lends plausibility to the idea that Blue 1 could cause these kinds of serious adverse effects if significant or persistent serum levels of the dye were to occur.”


Toxicol Ind Health. 2012 Feb 8. [Epub ahead of print]

Toxic effects of some synthetic food colorants and/or flavor additives on male rats.

The objective of the present work was to evaluate the broadest toxic effect of some synthetic additives of colorants and/or flavors on different body organs and metabolic aspects in rats. A number of chemical food color and flavor additives are routinely added during processing to improve the aesthetic appearance of the dietary items. However, many of them are toxic after prolonged use. In this experiment, a total of 100 male albino rats of Spargue Dawley strain were divided into 10 groups: G(1) was fed basal diet and served as control, G(2): basal diet + Brilliant blue (blue dye, No. 2, 124 mg/kg diet), G(3): basal diet + carmoisine (red dye, No. 3, 70 mg/kg diet), G(4): basal diet + tartrazine (yellow dye, FD & C yellow No. 5, 75 mg/kg diet), G(5): basal diet + trans-anethole (4.5 g/kg diet) G(6): basal diet + propylene glycol (0.25 g/kg diet), G(7): basal diet + vanillin(1.25 g/kg diet), G(8): basal diet + Brilliant blue + propylene glycol, G(9): basal diet + carmoisine + trans-anethole, G(10): basal diet + tartrazine + vanillin for 42 successive days. All food colorants mixed with or without flavor additives induced a significant decrease in body weight, hemoglobin concentration and red blood cell count. Also there was a significant decrease in reduced glutathione content; glutathione-S-transferase and superoxide dismutase activities in both blood and liver compared to control group. On the other hand, a significant increase in serum alanine aminotransferase, aspartate aminotransferase, alkaline phosphatase activities, bilirubin, urea, creatinine, total protein and albumin were observed in all test groups when compared to control group. Finally, it is advisable to limit the uses of these food colorants and/or food flavor additives especially those used by children.

Thoughts? Ideas? Here is a great resource if you want to go on your own DYE DIET and Eat Food and NOT Food Additives!


OTHERS in the MITOXIC Series of posts:

Mitochondria: The Canary in the Coal mine

MITOXIC: Dry Cleaning Chemicals


About Empowered Advocacy Pediatric Patient Advocate
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15 Responses to MITOXIC-Why eating artificial colors may not be good for any of us, especially mitochondrial disease patients

  1. Diane says:

    Thanks Kristi! Very well said!

    Blueberry juices, beet, pomegranate(your suggestion 🙂 Blackberries, all are great options to help give food fun and unique colors- I know Lady A cannot have lots of those, but for the general population they are a much healthier and tastier option.
    Here are a couple neat links I have found for coloring easter eggs for anyone wanting to avoid –

    • Baby(food)Steps says:

      Thank you so much @diane for your egg coloring suggestions! as you know pomegranate is one of our favorites around here!

  2. Jenna says:

    I hate how much food dye we have here in America, there is even food dye in your pickles!!!!!! I have written many companies for years even before having a child about the fact that they have safer products in other countries but sell the other version here. I don’t understand why these companies don’t sell the safer version here for a little extra for the many of us that want food dyes out of our lives.

    • Baby(food)Steps says:

      I couldn’t agree more…Jenna! Pickles are some of the HARDEST things to find in the grocery store without Yellow dye! I know…I have tried! Good thing we don’t eat many of them around our house!

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  9. Markey says:

    Because reading labels just doesn’t tell us everything we need to know, parents formed the Feingold Association, named for Dr. Feingold, author of Why Your Child is Hyperactive. Being a member means that you learn how to avoid dyes and the other additives made from petroleum (yes, dyes aer the only thing) and where to eat out and a list (300 pages!) of foods by brand name that have been researched to be free of these additives. Its website is There’s also a Yahoo group.

    • is a great resource for parents to get started in avoiding dyes and salicylates…
      however for us, our daughter was still reacting on many of the foods allowed in stage 1… so we had to search deeper!

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