Food dye can be found in a lot of surprising (and seemingly healthy) places—such as yogurt or pickles—but it turns out that even seemingly “whole” foods like fruit can be hiding the unwanted ingredient as well. Yes, some oranges are dyed to make them look “more orange.”

When I first stumbled across this assertion, I didn’t think there was any way that could be true. Turns out, the FDA has been behind this practice since the late 1950s. One of their policy guidelines says, “It is a common practice to color the skins of oranges in certain orange growing areas of the country because of climatic or cultural conditions which cause the oranges to mature while still green in color.”

More on artificial coloring and food dyes:

  • Artificial Coloring Triggered My Son’s ADHD. Then I Read This
  • Dunkin Donuts Eliminates Artificial Dyes, Still Sells Donuts
  • 10 Unexpected Places You Might Find Food Dye

I grew up in South Florida and I remember the oranges on my neighbor’s trees being a different color than the ones in the store (slightly dingier, more of a beigey-orange), but I just figured he wouldn’t have made a good orange farmer. I never really put two and two together.

According to the FDA, oranges can be dyed in one of two ways. First, an artificial dye called “Citrus Red 2” can be added to oranges “not intended or used for processing.” Translation: If it’s not being made into orange juice, red dye can be sprayed on the peels to make them look more orange. The other way Red No. 2 is added—and it’s worth noting this is usually only done in commercial applications—is through ethylene gas. This speeds up the blanching process, which is normally done right after picking.

Though Citrus Red No. 2 may get the stamp of approval from the FDA, in large amounts it can be harmful to human health. In fact, the NIH’s U.S. Library of Medicine’s Toxicology Data Network says Red No. 2 is “possibly carcinogenic” to humans. Beyond that, there’s speculation of synthetic dyes affecting personality and other aspects of our health (one of our nutritionists says certain types trigger her son’s ADHD.)

But if you’re shopping in the grocery store, you probably wouldn’t know if the oranges have been dyed; unfortunately they’re not required to bear a label declaring the use of artificial coloring. So, how do you avoid Citrus Red No. 2?

Well, you could peel the orange and eat it (red dye can’t be used anywhere other than the peel); you could buy organic oranges (they don’t allow dyes); or you could buy oranges grown in California or Arizona (these states have banned Citrus Red No. 2.)

The bottom line: Our nutritionist, Brierley Horton, MS, RD, says, “If you’re regularly zesting and candying peels, you may want to buy organic oranges. But if you’re making a single recipe, don’t feel like you have to run out to the store. Most people are eating the inside of citrus, and the benefits of what’s inside outweigh the residual dye on the exterior.”

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