A recent study suggests that inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis could be kickstarted by consuming Allura Red food dye over a long period of time.

The study found that frequent exposure to Allura Red (also known as FD&C Red 40 and Food Red 17), a common ingredient used to add colour and texture to foods such as sweets, drinks and dairy products, damages gut health and causes inflammation.

The dye disturbs gut barrier function and results in an increased production of serotonin in the gut. This results in susceptibility to colitis due to the change in gut microbiota composition.

Waliul Khan, the study’s senior author and professor of the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster University, Canada, said: “This study demonstrates significant harmful effects of Allura Red on gut health and identifies gut serotonin as a critical factor mediating these effects. These findings have important implication in the prevention and management of gut inflammation.”

There has been little research into the effect of synthetic food dyes such as Allura Red on gut health, however these dyes have become increasingly common in the last few decades.

“What we have found is striking and alarming, as this common synthetic food dye is a possible dietary trigger for IBDs. This research is a significant advance in alerting the public on the potential harms of food dyes that we consume daily,” continued Khan, who is also a principal investigator of Farncombe Family Digestive Health Research Institute.

He added: “The literature suggests that the consumption of Allura Red also affects certain allergies, immune disorders and behavioural problems in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

According to the study: “Although significant progress has been made to identify susceptible genes and understand the role of the immune system and the gut microbiota, similar advances in defining environmental risk factors for IBD have fallen behind.

“There is a growing body of evidence that diet plays a pivotal role in the development of IBD. IBD incidence is rising rapidly in developed countries, such as the United States and Canada, and developing countries with a dramatic “westernization” of lifestyle.”

The western diet typically includes consuming a large amount of processed fats, red and processed meats, sugar and little fibre, as well as numerous additives and food dyes.

Khan concluded that, although the study identified a link between food dyes and IBDs, further research is needed to better explore the link.

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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