Vibrant colors in our food often catch the eye, promising delight and variety, but could they be hiding secrets with unforeseen impacts on our health? As we wander through aisles of colorfully packaged foods, many of us remain unaware that Red 40, a prevalent food dye, might carry risks beyond its visual appeal. With a noticeable increase in early-onset colorectal cancer (EOCRC) among younger generations, researchers are delving into potential causes behind this worrying pattern. Is it possible that the culprit resides in the everyday items filling our shopping carts and meals?

In an era where our diets are increasingly dominated by processed foods, concerns are mounting over the hidden ingredients that color our meals and potentially impact our health. Among these, Red 40, a synthetic food dye, first approved by the FDA in 1971 and known for its vibrant hue, is drawing attention not for its aesthetic appeal but for its potential health risks. Recent groundbreaking research led by Dr. Alexander Chumanevich from the University of South Carolina, alongside a dedicated team, illuminates the troubling link between Red 40 consumption and the rise in EOCRC, a condition alarmingly on the rise among younger populations. This significant study, published in Toxicology Reports, explores the deep-seated impacts of this widely used food additive.

Colorectal cancer, particularly its early onset form, presents a growing challenge, with an increasing prevalence among individuals under 50 years old. Despite advancements in understanding lifestyle and dietary influences on health, the connection between the rise in EOCRC and modern dietary habits, especially the consumption of ultra-processed foods rich in synthetic dyes like Red 40, remains a critical area of investigation. Dr. Chumanevich and his team have embarked on a quest to unravel the mysteries of Red 40, delving into its effects on DNA damage, colonic inflammation, and the gut microbiome.

“The increase in the use of synthetic food colors in such foods over the past 40 years, including the common synthetic food dye Allura Red AC (Red 40), coincides with the rise of early-onset colorectal cancer,” Dr. Chumanevich explains. This correlation highlights the urgent need to understand the potential dangers lurking in our food and the importance of scrutinizing the additives that have become commonplace in our diets.

Their findings are cause for concern. Red 40 was shown to cause DNA damage both in vitro and in vivo, suggesting a direct link to genetic alterations that could predispose individuals to cancer. Furthermore, the study revealed that a high-fat diet combined with Red 40 consumption exacerbates colonic inflammation and disrupts the balance of the gut microbiome, factors known to contribute to colorectal cancer development.

To rigorously test these hypotheses, the team’s research strategy was meticulously designed to mimic real-world consumption patterns. This entailed transitioning from controlled in vitro (cell culture) experiments, which observe Red 40’s direct cellular impacts, to comprehensive in vivo studies involving mice consuming comparative amounts of Red 40 to that mimics human consumption. This dual approach allowed for the examination of Red 40’s broader physiological effects within a living system, thereby mirroring the compound’s interaction with human biology. Through their innovative methodologies, the researchers sought to explore not just the immediate effects of Red 40 but also its long-term implications on health, particularly in relation to colorectal cancer.

“Our results show that Red 40 damages DNA both in vitro and in vivo,” Dr. Chumanevich states, underscoring the additive’s potential as a carcinogenic agent. He further adds, “This evidence supports the hypothesis that Red 40 is a dangerous compound that dysregulates key players involved in the development of EOCRC.” The implications of these findings extend beyond the laboratory. They underscore the urgent need for a reevaluation of Red 40’s safety in the food industry and call for public health policies that prioritize consumer safety over aesthetic considerations. As we navigate the complexities of diet and health, the research conducted by Dr. Chumanevich and his team serves as a critical reminder of the importance of making informed dietary choices and advocating for transparency and safety in food production.


Qi Zhang, Alexander A. Chumanevich, et al. “The synthetic food dye, Red 40, causes DNA damage, causes colonic inflammation, and impacts the microbiome in mice.” Toxicology Reports, 2023.



Dr. Alexander Chumanevich, an Assistant Professor in the College of Pharmacy, has collaborated with Dr. Lorne Hofseth for over a decade at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Chumanevich, a graduate of Belarusian State University, has his Ph.D. from the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. Over the past decade, his research has focused on finding the causes and putative targets of inflammation-driven carcinogenesis.

Dr. Lorne Hofseth, earned his Ph.D. from Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada, in 1996. As a Professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of South Carolina, he serves as the Director of the Center for Colon Cancer Research and as the Associate Dean for Research. With over 100 publications and numerous NIH grants, Dr. Hofseth’s research focuses on understanding the role of diet, complementary and alternative medicines, and drugs in suppressing low-grade tissue-specific and systemic inflammation to prevent colorectal cancer. Recently, the Hofseth and Chumanevich laboratory has concentrated efforts on discerning dietary ingredients’ pro-inflammatory versus anti-inflammatory properties and their implications for policy and individual health. Specifically, they have investigated the impact of synthetic food dyes on colon carcinogenesis, with results presented in this paper stemming from such research activities.

Dr. Qi Zhang spearheaded the majority of the experiments detailed in this study, incorporating the findings into her doctoral research thesis, leading to her successful completion of a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina in 2021. She currently holds a Fellow Post-Doctoral Research position at the Saban Research Institute of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.