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11 Popular Foods That Contain Harmful Dyes & Chemicals

Find out what's lurking in some of your favorite foods.
FACT CHECKED BY Samantha Boesch
The product recommendations in this post are recommendations by the writer and/or expert(s) interviewed and do not contain affiliate links. Meaning: If you use these links to buy something, we will not earn a commission.

Manufactured and packaged foods are synonymous with convenience, but this advantage often comes with a price. These same foods are also more likely to contain chemicals and food dyes, some of which may be harmful to your health. Occasionally, enjoying processed foods with some of these ingredients likely won't cause any harm, but eating multiple sources of chemicals and dyes on a daily basis over a long period of time can have more serious effects.

Food in its whole form is less likely to contain questionable ingredients. For example, whole fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, grains, and legumes undergo minimal processing with few to zero added ingredients. To maximize your health, ensure that the majority of your diet is centered around these types of food. Luckily, many of these foods can also be prepped in a way that also makes them a convenient meal or snack option, while limiting your intake of questionable ingredients.

Here are 10 popular foods that often contain chemicals and artificial food dyes so you can know what to look for when you're at the store. Plus, we've included some healthier, chemical-free brands to try for each type of food. Read on, then check out the 100 Unhealthiest Foods on the Planet.


assorted candy

Eat This!: UNREAL Milk Chocolate Gems

Not That!: M&M's Milk Chocolate Candies

It may not surprise you that most colorful candy does not get its bright hues from natural sources. In fact, many candy options contain multiple sources of food dyes and colorings. Some food dyes have even been linked to Attention Deficient Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), with symptoms improving once artificial food dyes were removed from the diets of children with ADHD. While there is some conflicting research surrounding food dyes, they provide no nutritional value and should be minimal in your diet.

While M&M's are made with artificial coloring, including Red 40, Blue 1 Lake, and Yellow 5 Lake, UNREAL Milk Chocolate Gems get their coloring from natural sources like turmeric, beet juice, spirulina extract, and red radish juice.

 30 Healthy Sugar-Free & Low-Sugar Snacks



Eat This!: Vlasic Purely Pickles

Not That!: Mt. Olive Kosher Dill Pickle Spears

Sure, a pickle starts off as a cucumber, but add in loads of salt and some food colorings, and you have a much less healthy snack and sandwich addition. You'll often find yellow dyes in pickle ingredients to make the food a more vibrant color. Although there is research that does not link Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 with increased cancer risk, these dyes may contain contaminants known to be linked to cancer risk.

Mt. Olive Kosher Dill Pickle Spears contain artificial yellow dyes, but Vlasic Purely Pickles avoid these additives, instead opting for beta carotene for color.

 8 Highest-Quality Pickles on Grocery Shelves—and 3 To Avoid


organic beef jerky

Eat This!: Country Archer Provisions Grass-Fed Beef Jerky

Not That!: Slim Jim Steakhouse Teriyaki Beef Steak Strips

Beef jerky makes for a lean and transportable protein-packed snack. However, it is a common source of caramel coloring. Although you may not get any calories from this ingredient, there is questionable research on caramel coloring. This ingredient can also be found in sodas, candy, and other processed meats. Caramel color is sometimes manufactured with ammonia, which can result in cancer-causing contaminants. Not to mention, jerky can also be a source of high sodium content, added sugar, and monosodium glutamate (MSG), another ingredient with conflicting research.

Although a lean source of protein,  Slim Jim Steakhouse Beef Steak Strips- Teriyaki contains artificial flavors, a few forms of added sugar, and sodium nitrite, not to mention nearly a third of daily sodium needs. Country Archer Provisions Zero Sugar Classic Beef Jerky contains no added sugar, a much lower sodium content, and no nitrites.

 11 Best & Worst Beef Jerky Brands


colorful cereal

Eat This!: Magic Spoon Grain Free Fruity Cereal

Not That!: Kellogg's Fruit Loops

Cereal is a traditional breakfast for many and makes for an easy meal. With so many options on the market, not all cereals are created equally. While some pack impressive protein and fiber, others are loaded with sugar and questionable ingredients. BHT and BHA are preservatives added to processed foods like cereal and crackers. The FDA has categorized them as safe up to a certain amount; however, some research suggests BHA and BHT may disrupt sex hormones.

Magic Spoon Grain Free Fruity Cereal contains no artificial colors or flavors and is free of BHA and BHT. Meanwhile, Kellogg's Fruit Loops contains several food dyes and BHT, and provides fewer valuable nutrients, like fiber and protein.

 12 Unhealthiest Cereals—Ranked by Sugar Content

Fruit Snacks

glass bowl of fruit snacks

Eat This!: BEAR Real Fruit Rolls

Not That!: Fruit Gushers

This lunch box staple is beloved by children. Who can blame them? Fruit snacks are notoriously packed with sugar but also pack food dyes and colorings. In fact, some brands can have as many as four different dyes in them. Not to mention, they also have several different forms of sugar. With little nutritional value, you are better off trading this packaged snack for fresh fruit. However, there are some better-quality fruit snacks available, too.

Made with four food dyes, colors, and artificial flavors, Gushers are much less desirable than BEAR Real Fruit Rolls, which are made only with fruits and vegetables and no artificial ingredients or added sugar.

 15 Popular Fruit Snacks, Ranked by Sugar

Deli meat


Eat This!: Applegate Deli Meat

Not That!: Oscar Meyer Carving Board Cooked Ham

Whether it is the source of protein on your sandwich or you enjoy a few slices for an afternoon snack, deli meat is a household staple for many. Unfortunately, this processed meat is also loaded with salt and can contain caramel coloring and preservatives. Sodium nitrate is one of the common preservatives in deli meat, and this ingredient has been linked to colorectal cancer, according to some research. You may also see sodium nitrate as a preservative in deli meat, and this ingredient may also pose health risks if consumed in high amounts.

Oscar Meyer Carving Board Cooked Ham may only provide 60 calories per serving but also contains caramel color and sodium nitrite. However, Applegate Naturals Black Forest Ham is free from artificial ingredients and relies on salt as its main preservative.

 25 Unhealthiest Deli Meats—Ranked by Sodium


Marshmallows in a bowl

Eat This!: Max Mallow Marshmallows

Not That!: Jet-Puffed Marshmallows

Known for their bright white color, you may be surprised to learn marshmallows are yet another source of food dyes. In fact, dyes are used to create the crisp whiteness that has become synonymous with the treat. And for those colorful marshmallows, you can bet those have even more food dyes in them. Marshmallows are also packed with sugar, contain no fiber, and do not provide any notable micronutrients. Although a summertime favorite in smores, keep your marshmallow intake limited and load up on more nutritious sweets, like dark chocolate and fruit.

Max Mallow Marshmallows are free from dyes and added sugar and contain 2 grams of fiber per serving. On the other hand, Jet-Puffed Marshmallows contain artificial flavors, blue 1, and three forms of sugar.

Processed cheese

American Cheese

Eat This!: Tillamook Cheddar Cheese

Not That!: Kroger Singles American Cheese

This smooth cheese is known for its mild flavor and melty texture when heated. Compared to many other cheeses, American cheese is a manufactured cheese made through the combination of many ingredients. Some of these ingredients include artificial colors, preservatives, and emulsifiers, some of which may have a negative impact on health. Additionally, processed cheese generally has more saturated fat and lower protein content than natural cheese.

Kroger Singles American Sliced Cheese is made with added color and natural flavors, which may not actually be better than artificial ones as they can be made with chemicals. Tillamook Cheddar Cheese is simply made with milk, salt, enzymes, and plant-based color.

 10 Best & Worst Cheddar Cheeses

Granola bars

granola bar

Eat This!: Kate's Real Food Bars

Not That!: Cap'n Crunch's Original Crunch Treats

Whether enjoyed as part of breakfast or a quick snack, granola bars have become a popular food item. Similar to cereals, many options are available, some of which leave much to be desired nutritionally. Granola bars are highly processed foods, many of which contain added sugar, artificial flavors and colors, and preservatives like BHT. One study noted an increased risk of metabolic syndrome related to the intake of processed, sugary foods, including granola and cereal bars.

Cereal bars, like Cap'n Crunch's Original Crunch Treats, contain BHT, food dyes, and loads of sugar, making them an unhealthy way to start your day. Instead of a traditional cereal bar, choose an option with more well-rounded nutrition and real food ingredients, like Kate's Real Food Bars.

 The Best & Worst Granola Bars in America—Ranked

Spicy chips

Spicy Tortilla Chips

Eat This!: Lesser Evil Power Curls Fiery Hot!

Not That!: Takis Fuego

Highly flavored chips may come with a price. Not only can chips be a source of empty calories, packing sodium, fat, and carbohydrates with little fiber and protein, but they can also contain a slew of artificial ingredients. The bright red color of many of these chips is often from artificial dyes, and the intense flavor can be partially attributed to artificial flavors and MSG.

Takis Fuego may be known for its flavorful punch, but that spice comes with artificial colors, MSG, and Partially hydrogenated oil, leading to trans fats in food. Instead, Lesser Evil Power Curls Fiery Hot! are made with organic ingredients and no artificial flavor enhancers or colors.


ritz crackers in bowl on cloth napkin

Eat This!: Annie's Organic Cheddar Bunnies Baked Snack Crackers

Not That!: Cheez-It Crackers

With so many options available, it can be hard to determine the better-quality crackers from those containing chemicals and artificial ingredients. Some crackers contain food dyes, artificial flavors, and worrisome preservatives. One in particular, TBHQ, was associated with an increased incidence of tumors in rats. You may also see BHT and BHA as other preservatives in crackers.

Annie's Organic Cheddar Bunnies Baked Snack Crackers are made with organic ingredients and no artificial flavors or synthetic color. Cheez-Its may be a popular cracker, but this classic contains TBHQ.

Melissa Rifkin, MS, RDN, CDN
Melissa is a Connecticut-based registered dietitian with over 15 years of experience, including clinical and outpatient settings, and runs the popular nutrition education Instagram account, Confessionofadietitian. Read more about Melissa
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