Red M&Ms are the type of M&Ms that you buy in bulk 50 percent off on the day after Valentine’s Day, and later, consume half of a bag alone in your room. In commercials, the red M&M is a confident, attention-seeking candy voiced by Jon Lovitz.
But red M&Ms are also a symbol of mismanagement by the FDA and corporate public relations. From 1976 until 1987, the red candy disappeared from production because of an unwarranted public scare of red No. 2 food dye.
Turns out, the red M&M never even contained red dye No. 2. Mars used red dye No. 40. But after a public panic about red dye No. 2 that caused food companies to pull hot dogs, ice cream and dog food, Mars decided it would be easier to also pull its red M&M than explain the difference between the dyes.
The blame for red M&Ms’ disappearance can be traced back to crappy Russian science tests. Because of course. Seriously though, where did you think this story was going?
In the early 1970s, Russian scientists at The Moscow Institute of Nutrition fed rats red dye No. 2, and found that 26 percent of the rats developed tumors. And another study linked red dye No. 2 to stillbirths and deformities in rats. The U.S. immediately rejected the Russian studies, and then proceeded to conduct its own equally shoddy study.
According to priceonomics:
“The scientist originally in charge of the experiment left the agency midway through; handlers mixed up the rats, blurring the distinction between those given dye and those not; and most of the rats that died during the experiment were left to rot in their cages.” By all accounts, the evidence was inconclusive — if not an incoherent mess.”
The study’s results attracted a lot of media attention, and the FDA director at the time, flustered by the press, decided to ban red No. 2, and thus the ensuing Mars PR decision to remove red M&Ms from shelves and marketing.
Here’s an M&M commercial from the '80s noticeably without the red M&M:
Red M&Ms didn’t make it back to shelves until the 1990's, after a campaign by The Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&Ms, led by Paul Hethmon. In a 1987 article in the Chicago Tribune, Hethmon said:
"It was like the difference between seeing `The Wizard of Oz` in Technicolor and in black-and- white. You just don`t want to picture the Yellow Brick Road in black-and-white. That`s what M&Ms were like without the red ones."
Within weeks, Hethmon’s demands were met, and the red M&M was reinstated in 1987.
It should be noted that there are still concerns about food dye safety today. The FDA warns that, "certain susceptible children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and other problem behaviors" may have their condition "exacerbated by exposure to a number of substances in food, including, but not limited to, synthetic color additives." In fact, M&Ms in Europe are produced with natural food dye, derived from sources like carrots and beets, because the European Union requires food products with food dyes to have labels reading: "May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children."
Today, the Red M&M lives freely, stripping in public.