Is Food Coloring Safe For Dogs?
As a responsible dog parent, it’s important to you to know what’s going into Fido’s food bowl. That means making sure his food and treats include the highest-quality ingredients — and exclude additives that don’t need to be there!
Many dog parents have questioned whether food coloring is one of those ingredients they should watch for. Is food coloring safe for dogs? How do you identify dog safe food coloring? What’s the difference between artificial and natural food coloring?
As Wag! points out: “Food dye is nutritionally void, adding no additional calories, vitamins, or minerals. Its sole purpose is to make products more colorful for the pet parent.”
However, just because food dye is zero-calorie doesn’t make it zero-harm. There are risks to purchasing dog food and treats with food coloring agents, which pet parents ought to be aware of before they buy.
Where does food coloring in dog food come from?
Dog food coloring can be either natural or artificial.
Dyes that are considered “natural” are derived from an organic source, which can be anything from veggies, spices, algae or even beetles. However, although the base ingredient is organic, these dyes may still be heavily processed or treated with synthetic additives.
Artificial food coloring is derived from petroleum. Yes, petroleum! While dozens of artificial food coloring agents have been banned over the years, there are some synthetic dyes that are still legal and are widely used in dog food and treats.
Why do pet food companies use food coloring in dog foods?
Pet food companies add food coloring and dyes to their products for three main reasons:
1. To counteract discoloration from high heat
Whether they are canned or baked into kibble, most dog foods and treats are subjected to extreme heat at some point during processing.
Heat-intensive processing is known to significantly alter the nutritional value, taste and even appearance of the original ingredients. Many naturally occurring enzymes and nutrients break down, the texture of the meat is altered, and the end result is often highly discolored.
This is a big reason why many pet food manufacturers use dyes. They are attempting to replicate the pre-processed color of red meats and green veggies.
(Of course, another solution for this problem is to not use high heat in the first place — which is the path we’ve chosen here at Nature’s Advantage.)
2. To ensure uniformity of color
Regardless of which processing method is used, the natural variation in the meats and ingredients that go into pet food means that batches won’t all look exactly the same. Even slight variations in moisture content or other factors can cause some batches to be slightly darker or paler.
While all pet food manufacturers have enacted quality standards and define a narrow range of acceptable variation between batches, pet food manufacturers who want to create the illusion of absolute uniformity use food dye to cover up these natural variations in shade.
Although these manufacturers see natural variation as a problem, as a pet parent, you should see it as a good thing! Seeing this natural variation will give you confidence that the food you are buying isn’t over-processed, and is as close as possible to the original form of the fresh ingredients — just as nature intended.
3. To make the food more visually appealing to pet parents
The final and perhaps simplest reason for food coloring in dog food is: because people are drawn to it.
Humans are attracted to bright, vivid colors. Marketing professionals have known for a long time that the color red, in particular, makes people hungry and more likely to buy food items (or, in the case of dog food, to imagine Fido’s hunger and buy something for him).
Bright colors like green and yellow make us think of veggies, fresh and nutritious. Blues and purples add contrast and visual appeal. But in fact, color has no correlation to a food’s nutritional value — it’s just there for humans to admire.
And no, Fido doesn’t care about the color! Your dog isn’t completely colorblind, but he won’t fully appreciate all the pretty reds and greens of typical dog kibble.
Some pet parents may swear that their dog preferentially picks out the red pieces, or always leaves the yellows, and they definitely might — but it’s because of the smell and taste of those pieces, not their color.
You’ll notice that all three of these reasons have to do with human concerns. Food coloring is in no way helpful to dogs, and it is not added for their benefit.
Is food coloring safe for dogs if it’s been FDA-approved?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviews the risks of artificial food coloring ingredients. Over the years, it has banned dozens of synthetic dyes due to their toxicity or side effects.
The artificial food coloring agents that pet companies use today are approved by the FDA and follow the FDA’s guidelines outlining their use. As Dogs Naturally Magazine reports:
“The FDA currently certifies nine synthetic dyes. The most commonly used ones are FD&C Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. They are all derived from petroleum. Manufacturers like their bright tones and stability in products. They are also cheaper than natural alternatives.
Red, yellow, and black iron oxides are also FDA approved for some uses and are found in pet food. Iron oxide’s better-known name is, of course, rust. While the FDA considers these approved dyes safe, it’s a controversial topic and some are banned in some other countries.”
The FDA justifies the approval of these compounds by pointing out that there aren’t studies conclusively proving these dyes are bad for dogs, specifically. However, there are studies linking these synthetic dyes to health issues in both humans and rodents.
It’s not unreasonable to be concerned that our faithful dogs may suffer from the same effects as other mammals. Keep in mind that the exact same compounds are banned in many countries across Europe under the mindset of “better safe than sorry.”
Can dogs eat food coloring? What are the risks if they do?
The synthetic compounds known as Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are the most concerning. As the dog lovers at Wag! explain:
“Studies show that Red #40 and Yellow #5 and #6 can cause hypersensitivity and cell damage in small mammals (namely rodents). Hypersensitivity occurs when the immune system "overreacts" to a potential allergen. As a result, food-induced hypersensitivity has similarities to food allergies.
Red #40 (also called Allura Red) is FDA-approved for use in food and cosmetics. Studies indicate that this dye, along with Yellow #5 and #6, can cause hyperactivity in children and adolescents. Animal studies found that exposure to high doses of Red #40 resulted in changes in brain chemistry, as well as learning and memory.
Red #3 is another concerning food additive since studies have found a link between it and thyroid cancer. Even the FDA recognizes it as a carcinogen. Despite this — and former FDA commissioner Mark Novitch calling it a significant "public health concern" — the FDA still allows Red #3 in food and oral medications.
Several independent studies found trace amounts of known carcinogens in dyes Red #40 and Yellow #5 and #6. (The FDA allows trace amounts of these contaminants as long as they're within a certain percentage of the total volume.)”
Another synthetic dye, Blue 2, has raised warning flags as well for its link to brain tumors in rats during testing. All of these food coloring agents are widely in use in American dog food and treats.
Although they are completely legal, the bottom line is: why feed your dog something that could be extremely bad for them, when you have the option of dog food and treats that don’t include any artificial ingredients at all?
Is there dog safe food coloring? What about “natural” dog food coloring?
Artificial food coloring is clearly not the best choice for your dog. But is natural food coloring dog friendly or dog safe?
Unfortunately, even food coloring sourced from an organic material is still may not be safe — or “natural”!
Before you feed your pup food or treats that include natural food coloring, consider that even dyes that are based on a natural initial ingredient (such as seeds, molds, or even beetles) are often heavily processed or altered to create a finished result that is almost as synthetic as the artificially created dyes — and can be just as harmful.
For example, caramel color typically comes from corn syrup originally, but when it’s processed with ammonium it can create carcinogenic by-products. Carmine or cochineal, a natural red dye, is derived from crushed female beetles. It has been known to trigger reactions in those allergic to insect proteins — which may include your pet.
In short, while natural food coloring is certainly preferred over food coloring that is completely chemically synthesized, it still carries risks that pet parents must take into consideration.
The best option for your dog? No food coloring at all!
Whether artificial or natural dyes, the truth is that dog food and treats don’t need food coloring at all. These additives contribute nothing to the food’s nutritional value, and come with unnecessary risks for your dog. That’s why many dog parents choose food and treats that haven’t been altered by any dye.
After all, there’s nothing wrong with a food where you can see the color of the meat, the shades of muscle and fat, the bits of vegetables…in fact, that’s how you know it’s real food, made the way nature intended!
The results are in: dog food doesn’t need food coloring, and is better off without it.