Common Food Dye Can Cause Severe Allergic Reactions

ANN ARBOR---A color additive extracted from dried bugs and commonly used in fruit drinks, candy, yogurt and other foods can cause life-threatening allergic reactions, a University of Michigan physician has confirmed.

The colorant, called cochineal (koch-uh-NEEL) extract or carmine dye, has been used for centuries---dating back at least to the Aztec empire. It is made from female cochineal bugs, which are harvested in Central and South America and the Canary Islands specifically to be made into dye.

The extract is used to dye food, drinks, cosmetics and fibers various shades of red, orange, pink and purple.

Through a bit of medical detective work, U-M allergist James L. Baldwin, M.D., confirmed that cochineal extract triggered life-threatening anaphylactic shock in a patient after she ate a popsicle containing the colorant.

A paper on the subject will be published in the November issue of the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Ironically, cochineal extract often is not listed on food labels. As an animal product, it is considered a "natural" additive and, therefore, is subject to less stringent labeling regulations than synthetic food dyes.

Baldwin wants more doctors and patients to be aware that the extract may be the cause of unexplained allergic reactions---from mild hives and itchy skin to dangerous anaphylaxis. Only through more awareness, he says, will the medical community be able to determine how many people are sensitive to cochineal extract.

"If we don't look for it," he says, "we're not going to find it."

He does not advocate removing the colorant from the market, and points out that several large studies have found it to be safe and non-toxic. It would be helpful, however, if the FDA required cochineal extract and carmine to be listed as an ingredient on food labels, he says. The only way people can avoid allergic reactions is to avoid the substance they're

Contact: David Wilkins
University of Michigan

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