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Can dyeing make you ill?
25th March 2004
Here we go again. Every couple of years we get a "new" scare about the over-use of food colouring in curries. This time it's all down to the Trading Standards officers at Surrey County Council.

According to the Surrey County Council website "A shock new food survey has found that a staggering 57% of Surrey's Indian restaurants are putting illegal - and potentially dangerous - levels of artificial colour into their curries". The culprit is chicken tikka masala and, as it's been known for years by virtually all curry fans that chicken tikka masala contains plenty of food colouring, I'm not sure quite how shocking these latest results really are. I can't find anywhere on the Council's website or in its press releases exactly how much food colouring a curry has to contain before it's illegal. But I do wonder how much of the same colouring agents you would be ingesting if, say, you ate a pack of Smarties, had a drink of Sunny Delight and scoffed a cake with hundreds and thousands on top. The same? More? Sure, each of those products contains a legal amount of food colouring but what's the cumulative effect?

red food colouring
red food colouring used in curries

      The Food Standards Agency, the UK's chief advisory body on food, has told The Sun newspaper that "the available evidence on tartrazine, sunset yellow and ponceau 4R, which have been identified in the Surrey curry survey, has not identified particular harmful effects even at very high intakes". OK, so how much curry can you eat before it's dangerous? The Food Standards Agency (FSA) explained to The Sun that you would have to eat "more than 1lb of chicken tikka masala containing high levels of dye every day for a number of years before you became ill".

Much more worrying, but less sensational, is an ongoing problem of processed foodstuffs containing a colouring called Sudan-I (which was not found in the Surrey curry survey). Sudan-I is an industrial dye designed to give a red colour to solvents, waxes, shoe polish and floor polishes. Now this really IS an illegal dye in foodstuffs in any country in the world and has proven carcinogenic properties.

Unfortunately and, of course, illegally, 3 Indian spice merchants used Sudan-I to give their chilli powder an extra deep red colour. That chilli powder was then used, unknowingly, by a host of manufacturers to make some of their products.

The spice merchants in question have since had their licences suspended by the Spices Board of India and are currently under investigation. The problem is that the contaminated chilli powder was used for some time before the contaminant was discovered and products containing the dye are still being identified.

According to the excellent, informative and decidedly non-sensationalist website of the FSA even if you have eaten a product containing Sudan dye you are unlikely to be harmed unless you eat that product regularly over a long period of time. A current list of products found to have contained the illegal dye can be found on the FSA website.

So, what's the advice from The Curry House?

  1. If your doctor has identified that you suffer an adverse reaction to tartrazine, sunset yellow and ponceau 4R then avoid chicken tikka masala and any other product containing those colourings.

  2. If you are a reasonably healthy adult then carry on eating curry - food colouring and all.

  3. Check on the FSA website to make sure you don't have any products in your kitchen cupboard which are contaminated with Sudan dye. If you do, throw them away or return them to the shop where you bought them for a refund. Check back regularly over the next few months as more products are discovered.

  4. Don't get panicked by the latest food scare. If something food related is worrying you then check out the FSA website for the best current advice.

Links to articles:

Food Standards Agency - "Sudan dyes"

The Sun newspaper - "Don't nikka our tikka!"

Surrey County Council - "Shock news about Britain's favourite dish"

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© 2004 David W Smith