Many Processed Foods Made from Coal Tar Derivatives: Facts

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Many Processed Foods Made from Coal Tar Derivatives


Many processed foods are made with a coal tar derivative chemical that causes hyperactivity in children.

Other Versions

Coal tar is what many dyes used in the processed food are derived from. In 2007 tartrazine, commercially known as yellow #5, was connected to childhood hyperactivity and since then an EU health regulation states that any product containing it must have a warning label. There is no such law in US.


These messages shared online in various versions state that many processed foods today are made from Coal tar derivatives that are harmful to human health. As an example, they state that Tartrazine (known as yellow #5) was associated with hyperactivity in children. Let us analyze the extent of facts in these claims.


For centuries, natural color additives occurring in vegetable and mineral sources were used to color foods, drugs and cosmetics. Examples of such natural dyes are turmeric, saffron, paprika, iron and lead oxides, and copper sulfate. These were used in non-organic, processed foods.

Why Food Coloring

Food colors are used because people associate certain colors with certain flavors, and for the appetizing effect they have on consumers. But the safety of products containing artificial colors is debated for decades.

Side Effects

Many of the natural colors used, however, contained toxins like mercury, copper and arsenic, so in 20th century, scientists started developing synthetic colors, derived from coal tar. As these dyes were initially produced from the by-products of coal processing, they were known as ‘coal-tar colors’. But again, these synthetic alternatives have had their own problems. To regulate the safety of these color additives used, the 1938 FD&C Act (Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act) mandated the listing of those coal-tar colors (except coal-tar hair dyes) that were “harmless and suitable” for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics.

Significant Incidents

Tartrazine, also called FD&C Yellow No. 5 (or simply Yellow 5) is derived from coal tar as suggested in news reports here and here. Tartrazine is a common dye widely used in candy, cereal, beverages, pickles, make up, drugs and many other products. Use of Tartrazine as the bright yellow color additive in food is linked to certain health issues ranging from mild indigestion, allergies to severe depression.

A 2007 study conducted by the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency has linked use of Tartrazine (E102) to childhood hyperactivity. In fact, it was known that few other food additives listed below may increase hyperactive behavior:

  • Sodium benzoate
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow)
  • D&C Yellow No. 10 (quinoline yellow)
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine)
  • FD&C Red No.40 (allura red)

Because of these concerns, the British government has requested food manufacturers to remove most artificial food dyes from their products. The European Union recommended that any product containing one or more of the artificial colorings should carry a warning label. Tartrazine dye is banned in Norway, Finland and Austria. FDA in United States believes that studies to date have not proved the link between food colorings and hyperactive behavior. FDA requires FD&C Yellow No. 5 be clearly labeled on food packaging along with other ingredients, but many colorings and food additives do not require labeling.

Interestingly, according to FDA, Tartrazine causes hives in less than 0.01% of those exposed to it. Since the fall of 1950, there were similar health issues linked with some other color additives, following which FDA reevaluated and terminated some of their listings in the next few years. Note that during that time, it also became clear that coal was no longer the primary raw material source for the manufacture of color additives.

Synthetic Colors

Although certifiable color additives have been called as coal-tar colors because of their traditional origins, today they are synthesized mostly from raw materials obtained from petroleum. The reason being, manufacturers find chemically synthesized colors easier and less costly to produce, and that they have superior coloring properties. Nonetheless, there are also some concerns that synthetic colors derived from raw materials obtained from petroleum may as well be harmful to human health.

So all these concerns underscore the need to read food labels carefully, especially in case of children and also pets. Thankfully, more and more companies are going the natural way these days, also labeling their products that say “Contains no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.”

Hoax or Fact:

Mixture of Hoax and Facts.


Color Additives: FDA’s Regulatory Process and Historical Perspectives
Many processed foods are made with a coal tar derivative chemical that causes hyperactivity in children
Living in Color: The Potential Dangers of Artificial Dyes
Do food additives cause hyperactivity? – Mayo Clinic
Food coloring

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Prashanth Damarla