A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Mountain Dew = shrinking 'nads?

August 29, 1997

Dear Cecil:

My 15 year old rocker used to love to drink Mountain Dew, even though it made him bounce off the walls and never stop talking. Recently he has refused the beverage claiming that the yellow #5 dye in this soda will make his "balls shrink." Is there any truth to this statement? Kids have drunk Mountain Dew for years — this is the first time I have ever heard this one!

Cecil replies:

Your kid told his mother what? Such language. The proper expression when one speaks to adults is "testicular atrophy." See how far he gets asking soft drink companies about shrinking balls.

Not that he'll get real far no matter how he phrases this oft-heard story. A spokesperson for Pepsi, which makes Dew, denies that the product has "adverse effects on the human reproductive system." Likewise from Coca-Cola, maker of Mello Yello, which also contains FD&C yellow number five (hereinafter called by its common name, tartrazine). The Food and Drug Administration says pretty much the same thing, and a review of the medical literature turned up nothing.

Nothing, that is, about testicular atrophy. But let's put the question a little differently. Does tartrazine have any adverse health effects, period? You bet. Many researchers agree that in some individuals tartrazine can cause hives, swelling, or asthma. A few also think it can cause hyperactivity in kids. So if Mountain Dew made your 15-year-old rocker bounce off the walls, it might not have been strictly the caffeine.

Tartrazine is found in numerous food products, including canned vegetables, chewing gum, hot dogs, pasta, ice cream, and fruit juice concentrate. The stuff accounts for 85 percent of the food dye you consume each day. It's used to improve (well, alter) the aesthetics of many foods sold to children — macaroni and cheese is an obvious example — so kids typically get a lot more than adults.

How common is tartrazine sensitivity? The numbers in the literature are all over the place, but there does seem to be a close link between tartrazine and aspirin, which triggers asthma attacks in 10 to 16 percent of adults and 2 to 6 percent of children. As I read it, if you're not sensitive to aspirin, you probably won't be sensitive to tartrazine either. But if you are aspirin-sensitive and you get asthma attacks that aren't provoked by aspirin or any other obvious cause, you might check the ingredients of stuff you've eaten lately and see if they include yellow number five.

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