When is an Orange Not Just an Orange?

I know. Not quite as funny as my two-year old’s knock-knock jokes, but just as bewildering! When Dr. Sneed and I first learned about the use of the color additive Citrus Red #2 to make an orange appear, well, more orange I was so enraged I couldn’t see straight. Here I was, trying to feed my children the healthy, nutritious food they would actually like on a daily basis – and one of the staples of our morning meals (scrambled eggs and an orange) was corrupted?? Injected with a color additive WITHOUT labeling? WITHOUT my knowledge?

It took us a while to start eating oranges again. And now that we do, they are always organic. Always. Honestly, this revelation changed the way I shop from “eh, organic is great if they have it, but if not I’ll just buy the regular” to “buy organic, or change the meal plan.”

Not that an organic label on anything guarantees its nutrition and health value – but at least with produce it is as close as you can get to a guarantee of uncorrupted food.

While the information available, even in the age of the all-knowing Google, is a bit hard to put together, I’ve done some research to try and give you as much information as possible to make an informed decision. So…

What is Citrus Red #2?

Citrus Red #2 is a yellow/orange color additive, or food dye, approve for use by the FDA in 1956 in orange peels and the “surfaces and casings of frankfurters or sausages.” It is allowed to be injected into orange peel in no more than 2ppm (parts per million) – which means that it is the equivalent of one milligram per liter of water.

How is Citrus Red #2 used in Oranges?

Citrus Red #2 is a color additive certified for use in oranges by the FDA. It is allowed only for use in oranges not intended/used for processing….but if they are then they must be designated as “Packinghouse elimination.” Packinghouse elimination oranges are purchased by other companies for use in concentrate and single strength juice, according to a 2007-2008 season Market News Bulletin released by Florida Citrus Mutual.

The age of the fruit injected with the dye is regulated at the state legislature for the states in which oranges are grown, rather than by the FDA. California and Arizona have banned the use of Citrus Red 2 in their states.

As I mentioned above, no more than 2ppm may be injected into any single orange – based upon the weight of the fruit. That being said, per Title 21,  the solution injected may also contain up to a combined 2% of the following:

  • Volatile matter (at 100 deg. C.), not more than 0.5 percent.

  • Water-soluble matter, not more than 0.3 percent.

  • Matter insoluble in carbon tetrachloride, not more than 0.5 percent.

  • Uncombined intermediates, not more than 0.05 percent.

  • Subsidiary dyes, not more than 2.0 percent.

  • Lead (as Pb), not more than 10 parts per million.

  • Arsenic (as As), not more than 1 part per million.

Why is Citrus Red #2 potentially dangerous?

Citrus Red #2 is an azo dye, which means that its chemical make up is classified as an “aryl azo compound” – a stable, crystalline compound derived from benzidine, a known carcinogen which has been linked to bladder cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies Citrus Red #2 as a Group 2B carcinogen (listed on page 11 of the pdf) – “meaning that it is possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in lab tests, when Citrus Red 2 was given to rats, only 5-7% of the doses give to rats orally were completely intact when they came out the other end, meaning the rest of it was broken down by the digestive system and potentially absorbed into the system. In a separate study, female mice injected with 10% Citrus Red 2 for 35weeks had an increase in malignant tumors, especially in the lungs and lymph nodes.

An additional study fed the dye to 40 rats in different dosages from 0.05-5% over 104 weeks. While there was no reported increase in tumors in this study, the rats in the highest group of 5% did not make it past 31weeks, while the rats in groups with as little as 0.5% “experienced differences from controls in gross appearance, growth, organ weights, and … pathology.” Even rats given the 0.1% dosages showed increased organ weight, swelling, and increase of “fat droplets in the cytoplasm of the cells.”

One last study – infant mice, immediately after weaning, who were given dosages between 0.05 and .25%, were found to have an increased number of cells, as well as a thickening of the bladder wall and tumors, both benign and malignant, in the bladder itself.

As a result of these tests, which are by no means recent, going back to 1965 and 1970, the Center for Science in Public Interest reports that an former FDA employee, Kent J. Davis, wrote in an internal FDA memo that:

“Citrus Red 2 then becomes an intolerable human health hazard if only from the amounts consumed from fingers after peeling oranges treated with this dye. (Some additional dye may be ingested with peel or orange.) The continued certification and use of this color may also be a violation …of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as amended which prohibits use of any carcinogenic color additive for uses which may result in ingestion of part of such additive.”

While it is still allowed for use in the US, Citrus Red #2 has been banned for use in all foods the European Union and other countries.

So how do I avoid Citrus Red #2?

The easiest way seems to be to buy organic, or oranges only from California or Arizona.

As the FDA has left it up to the individual state governments to regulate the age of the fruit when it is injected with Citrus Red #2, California and Arizona both have banned its use completely. So fruit grown and shipped directly from there should be dye free (although remember, if they aren’t organic they could still be grown with pesticides and other chemicals). Sunkist is one company which sources its oranges only from California and Arizona, and has publicly stated that they are never dyed. If the oranges you are picking up from the store aren’t labeled with their origin, ask to speak with the produce manager and they should be able to tell you where they came from.

As for the organic option, according to the USDA, “Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment.” While I’ve found nothing explicitly stating that the organic label on oranges specifically prohibits the use of Citrus Red #2, as Citrus Red #2 is a synthetic substance, this would seem to indicate that it should fall under the prohibited substances list for organic labeling.

If you do need to use non-organic oranges from Florida, you may want to consider avoiding using the rind in any sort of cooking or processing (pickling, canning, etc.). An email from the FDA in response to a consumer’s inquiry about the safety of Citrus Red #2 in processing by home cooks states that “I believe that color additives when used for fruits or seafood are still required to be generally safe when used as intended. The amounts of the additive are restricted for safety purposes. This includes use at the consumer level.”  The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also states that “The amounts of this rarely used dye that one might consume, even from eating marmalade, are so small that the risk is not worth worrying about.” The CSPI does, however, also mark it as a dye to avoid if possible, and FDA regulations do attempt to prohibit use of oranges treated with Citrus Red #2 for processing, so it would most likely be prudent to avoid doing so, especially with the rinds which received the direct injection, in your own home.


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