This page last updated: June 6, 2005

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Should I Add Red Dye to My Hummingbird Food?

Here's my full answer,
with helpful insights from Lanny Chambers & Sheri Williamson:


Should I add red dye to my hummingbird food?

In a word (or two): Absolutely not.

Red dye is a touchy subject for many folks. Some loathe its use. A few swear by it. The more research I do on this subject, the more convinced I become that it should NOT be part of a hummingbird's diet.

On May 19, 2005, I went to GOOGLE and did a search for "hummingbird nectar red dye" and came up with about 5340 hits. I scanned the first 100 websites and found that the sites that came the closest to promoting use of red dye in nectars were (surprise), the websites of the commercial nectar suppliers themselves (read http://www.duncraft.com/Birdfeeding_Myths.ihtml, and the very misleading statement on the subject by Opus at: http://www.opususa.com/experts_hummingbirds.html). The rest, without exception, came out on the side of NOT including red dye in hummingbird nectar -- many websites emotionally urge readers to NOT include dyes in the solution, while others warn that it may be harmful and is at least unnecessary.

So why is red dyed nectar still commercially available? Certain popular hummingbird product companies (Perky Pet, Opus/Gardensong, Duncraft, and Artline/Briggs, to name a few) insist on offering red-dyed nectar to consumers. I think they do this, frankly, because through their marketing scheme they've trained people to expect it that way. It represents big bucks in this business.

Industry leader Perky Pet is representative of the other suppliers in standing by their decision to offer red nectar, claiming that they know of no research which proves red dye is harmful to hummingbirds.

True. No formal studies have been published on the effects of red dye specifically on hummingbirds.

But as hummingbird expert Lanny Chambers points out in his excellent discussion of this topic, Perky Pet has an ethical obligation as the industry leader in hummingbird products to do no harm to birds. Their apparent disregard for strong evidence (see below) about the potential dangers of these dyes on other small animals concerns me.

By the way, Lanny's comments are required reading, too [www.hummingbirds.net/dye.html].

In May 2004, an email to me from Julie McKinney at Perky Pet's customer service stated that their dye is "#40 and is FDA approved for all foods." That's a very misleading statement since FDA approves foods for humans, not animals. And what's good for humans is not necessarily good for animals. Consider acetaminophen (Tylenol). It has beneficial effects in most humans, but it "can cause bone marrow depression, anemia, gastric lesions, and death" if given to a cat.

Addendum: In follow-up correspondence with Julie at Perky Pet, she stated that they were working on an "all-natural dye that should be ready later this summer." Aside from the fact that any additive to hummingbird nectar is a waste, we'll have to see what "all-natural" actually turns out to be.

FOLLOW-UP -- Hummingbird aficionados began noticing this new "natural nectar" product by Perky Pet in early 2005. The label claims that the "natural red color sourced from a unique blend of flower petals and insects."

Perky Pet's interest in trying to create a product that would be better for hummers than any of the artificial products on the market (from Newfield's review) is cheapened by their statement that they have no plans to phase out their original, potentially harmful Red #40-containing dyed nectar (per email May 2005 to Sheri Williamson by PP customer service rep "Jeanine").

In May 2004 an unidentified customer service representative from Opus emailed me that "all Opus products have been thoroughly researched and are completely safe for birds to eat. We use .02096 of 1% red dye #40."

I asked for clarification about the "thorough research" and "completely safe" and they chose not to respond. To my knowledge, there is absolutely no published, peer-reviewed research that states that red dye is "completely safe" for any animal, not to mention hummingbirds. On the contrary, several published scientific papers suggest just the opposite (see below).

Opus further justifies their decision to add red dye by claiming that customers like the ability to see the level of the solution in the feeder at a glance, something that is a bit more difficult with a clear liquid.

On the other hand, one reason NOT to use red dye is that it masks the presence of fermentation -- it's more difficult to see when the solution becomes cloudy and starts to spoil. Hence, folks may be more likely to "extend" the life of their solution beyond the safety zone just because the red stuff doesn't look as dirty. You be the judge on what's in the best interest of the birds.

Either of the two red azo dyes, those derived from coal tar, currently in use in the USA (Red #3 and #40) are problematic, and many store-bought "food coloring" dyes that some folks add to their homemade nectar contain a mixture of both.

The most widely used red dye in the USA is FD&C Red #40 [a.k.a. Allura red AC, a.k.a, Red-40, a.k.a. E129, a.k.a. dialuminum salt of 6-hydroxy-5-(2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfnphenyl) azo-2-naphthalene sulfonic acid]. It can and does cause "allergic-type" reactions in some humans, especially those sensitive to aspirin.

Red #40 is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and Norway but can be used in the USA. The LD50 (the Lethal Dose for 50% of the lab animals) for oral administration in rats is > 10 g/kg.

A similar red dye, Red #3, is banned in Norway. "Provisional uses" for FD&C Red #3 [a.k.a. erythrosine, a.k.a. E127...] have been terminated by the United States Food and Drug Administration, and the permanent listing status of this dye is under review. Until the lengthy and apparently cumbersome review process is complete, this dye is still legally available in the USA. The fact that hummingbird nectar suppliers now appear to make a point that their dye is "Red #40" perhaps reflects the growing awareness about the dangers of Red #3.

Regarding dye and hummingbirds -- let me point out a few things:

  1. Some hummingbird enthusiasts claim that in side-by-side tests, hummingbirds actually prefer the CLEAR solution over an identical solution which contains colored dyes -- EVEN THE NEW "NATURAL DYE" BY PERKY PET (Read the initial review by Nancy Newfield).
  2. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color of the FLOWER, not the color of the nectar! Most hummingbird feeders already have ample splashes of red on them to attract the birds; colored nectar is unnecessary.
  3. Hummingbird expert Lanny Chambers cites anecdotal evidence from wildlife rehabilitators who believe red dyes in hummingbird nectar are responsible for tumors seen in hummingbirds which feed heavily on dye-laden nectars and are brought to these folks for rehabilitation.
  4. The Accepted Daily Intake (ADI) for Red #40 approved for human consumption by the World Health Organization (WHO) is a maximum of 7 mg per kg (0.007 mg/g) of body weight (equivalent to 0.007 mg per g body weight). In other words, a 3.5 gram hummingbird that consumed 0.0245 mg of red dye would exceed the WHO standards for humans -- see point # 5-1 below!
  5. Research by Tsuda, et. al (2001; see below) found that Red #40 induced statistically significant DNA damage in the colon of mice when they were given concentrations as low as 10 mg/kg. A 3.5 gram hummingbird that consumed 0.035 mg of red dye (10 mg/kg) would exceed the concentration shown to cause DNA damage in mice. Do hummers consume that much? YES! Read on...
In simple terms... The amount of red dye consumed daily by an average hummingbird feeding on Opus nectar with the dye concentrations supplied above is 17x higher than the Accepted Daily Intake recommended by the World Health Organization for humans, and 12x higher than the concentration found to induce DNA damage in mice. Does this mean it's potentially dangerous for hummers? You decide.

My conclusion -- by all means, leave it out!

PUBLISHED EVIDENCE

There is actually published evidence that Red #3 and Red #40 has deleterious effects in some animals. As we've stated earlier, none of these researchers have studied hummingbirds, but their conclusions on other animals still are cause for concern. For starters read the following published research abstracts or summaries (emphasis in RED are my own):

There are also unpublished / unconfirmed aspects of azo-dyes that trouble some people:

Again, whether or not this dye is "proven" harmful to hummingbirds there is enough evidence to convince most people that the potential for it to be harmful outweighs any need to include it in your solution! It is also at the very least entirely unnecessary. I encourage you to leave it out of your hummingbird nectar.

If you insist on spending the extra bucks to buy pre-packaged, commercially available nectar, at least go for the clear, dye-free stuff. Most companies offer it now, perhaps recognizing the rising tide of knowledgeable and concerned hummingbird enthusiasts out there. I recommend the "Best-1" brand -- their company policy has been to never include red dye in their powdered mixture -- a stand I find insightful and courageous, especially since it goes against the policy of the current industry leaders.


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Send questions or comments to: Stacy Jon Peterson