Why were Red M&Ms eliminated? Should I be concerned?

 Much to the public’s dismay, the Mars and Murray Company stopped production of red M&Ms because of a health scare concerning Red Dye Number 2, which at the time was the most common red food dye in use. This dye was never used in M&Ms but the company decided to withdraw the red candies “to avoid consumer confusion and concern.” It isn’t clear exactly what confusion Mars and Murray was worried about since the Food and Drug Administration banned Red Dye Number 2 in January of 1976. So if red M&Ms had stayed on the market, it would have clearly meant that the suspect dye was not used. Perhaps the Company was concerned that people might think it was using an illegal dye. The story becomes even more bizarre when the evidence upon which Red Dye Number 2 was banned is examined. In the early 1970s there were a couple of small, poorly carried out Soviet studies that suggested the dye caused thyroid tumours in male rats and stillbirths and deformities in females. These were followed by some flawed American studies, which even if correct, would have implied that a human would have to drink 7500 cans of colored soda a day to reach the levels of dye that had been given the rats. Canada was unconvinced by the American studies and never banned Red Dye Number 2. Various rumours began to float around about why the red dye was actually banned, with the most popular one suggesting that it was actually an unapproved aphrodisiac. Cleverly Mars and Murray never addressed this issue, anticipating the eventual return of the red candies. This actually happened in 1988 after the furor about the toxicity of Red Dye Number 2 had died away. With great fanfare the red M&Ms were reintroduced, with some ingenious advertising hinting at the supposed aphrodisiac properties.

Joe Schwarcz

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