Food coloring is in many of the foods and beverages we encounter every day. Though we may not realize it, food dyes and additives are responsible for keeping our food looking and tasting the way we expect — and they’ve been around for longer than you might think.
The History of Color Additives in Food
Humans have been adding coloring their food since the dawn of recorded history — dating all the way back to 1500 B.C. Egyptian records indicate the use of natural colorings from paprika, saffron, and turmeric to both enhance the flavor and appearance of their food.
European countries in the early centuries had a mostly agriculture-based economy. Peasants were at first only producing and trading within their villages and didn’t place much importance on the appearance of their food. The 15th century brought urbanization and a new market for higher-quality foods. The explosion of trade at this time meant people had more options, and the appearance of traded foods and spices became more important.
With industrialization and competition within local markets for producers, people began to explore ways to sell more of their goods. At first — without the help of analytical chemistry that we have today — food alteration ran rampant and unregulated. Heavy metals and other harmful additives were used to pass expired goods off to unsuspecting consumers. In 1531, an overly-harsh law from Augsburg, Germany, was made to dissuade this type of bad business — sellers of falsified saffron were to be burned.
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since the early days of artificial food dyes. We have the benefit of modern chemistry and strict rules from the FDA that define approved food colorings. The FDA bases their regulation system on a positive list, which only allows for ingredients that are known to be safe for our foods.
Throughout the rest of this article, we’ll cover:
- What Chemicals Are in Food Coloring — Natural and Synthetic
- How Food is Colored
- Some Common Questions About Food Coloring
What Chemicals Are in Food Coloring?
A large percentage of the food consumed in the United States contains food coloring. Processed foods contain additives to make them look more appealing, remove bacteria, and have a longer shelf life. Surprisingly, about 70% of the of the average American’s diet contains processed foods!
Many of the foods we encounter every day would not have the vibrant color we are used to if food coloring wasn’t so typical. In fact, many foods would look completely different and nowhere near as appealing. Grey hot dogs anyone? Food coloring is around to stay.
There are two main categories — natural and synthetic food colorings.
Natural and synthetic food colorings are responsible for keeping our foods' appearance matching our expectations. As eating is a full sensory experience, we tend to avoid foods with a color that doesn’t reflect the taste or freshness we are looking for — it’s a biological defense mechanism which has led to all of the natural and artificial food dyes used today.
While the prevailing sentiment may be natural is better than artificial, that’s not always the case with food coloring. Both functionally and in their appearance — natural and synthetic food colorings each have their advantages.
Natural Food Coloring
As a response to the trend of moving away from processed foods and ingredients, natural food coloring has become increasingly popular. Some of the natural dyes we use today are the same as what people have used for centuries — including carotenoids, chlorophyll, anthocyanin, and turmeric.
Many of these natural, plant-based dyes are not only good for coloring food — they’re rich in vitamins and minerals too. Carotenoids, which are used mainly for their orange, red, and yellow colors, function as antioxidants in your body. They reduce free-radicals and help your eyes and skin, and lower your risk for cancer and other diseases. One of the most popular carotenoids is beta-carotene, which comes from sweet potatoes and pumpkins — it's often added to dairy products like margarine and cheese because its soluble in fat.
Another popular plant-based food coloring is chlorophyll. It's in all green plants and algae and is essential for their photosynthetic processes. We owe the oxygen in our atmosphere to chlorophyll. Not only that, but it gives mint and lime-flavored foods like ice cream and candy the color we want.
Anthocyanins may sound artificial, but they are the organic compounds responsible for the deep color in blueberries, cranberries, and grapes. It’s a popular choice as a natural food dye because its solubility in water means it works well in a variety of products — unlike some other natural colorings. Water-based products like soft drinks, jelly, and even blue corn chips get their color from anthocyanins.
The name “anthocyanins” refers to a group of similar chemical compounds — as opposed to beta-carotene, which is one individual molecule. Over 500 different types of the organic compound have been derived from natural plant sources. Its unique molecular structure is what’s responsible for its high water solubility.
Another favorite food coloring that people have used for thousands of years is turmeric. You would recognize it in the ball-park style yellow mustard that you use at barbeques and in many Asian foods and curries. It comes from the root of the turmeric plant that grows most abundantly in Southeast Asia and India, hence its association with some of that region's most popular foods. It's not only a favorite for its excellent flavor but the vibrant yellow color that it naturally imparts.
This next one may surprise you.
Many common red-colored foods and beverages get their color from bugs. That’s right — carmine is a dye that’s naturally produced by insects called cochineals. The acid that the insects produce is a defense against predators and makes a vibrant red. Cosmetic brands also use the coloring in lipstick and other beauty products.
Carmine dye has been used for centuries and even by the Aztecs to dye their fabrics red. More recently, Starbucks was putting the coloring in some of their strawberry flavors but has since stopped because of unhappy customers.
If you’re put off by the thought of using a dye derived from bugs, consumers can avoid food labeled as containing carmine, cochineal, or Natural Red 4. Although there have been rare cases in which people have had allergic reactions to the ingredient, it’s considered safe for the general population.
Synthetic Food Coloring
With the wide variety of natural food coloring available, why would anyone choose to use artificial dyes? There are several reasons.
- Cost: One primary reason why artificial food colorings are still so popular is that they are much cheaper to produce than their natural counterparts. They can be mass-produced without having to harvest and process the sometimes slow-growing and costly natural ingredients.
- Longevity: Artificial dyes often have a longer shelf-life than natural options producing a similar color. While natural dyes may work well for certain perishable foods, synthetic colors work best when a product needs to be packaged and last a long time.
- Variety: Natural food dyes are limited — not only by what nature can produce but by the foods they suitably mix with. They often don’t preserve food for long periods of time. When manufacturers artificially produce food colors, there is no limit to the colors or purposes for which they can be used — assuming they fall within the strict FDA regulations for what is considered safe. Given the thousands of different foods and beverages with unique colors, synthetics are often the first choice.
Dye manufacturers previously derived artificial food coloring from coal tar. This process didn’t last long, as people soon became aware of the offputting process behind their food coloring. But interestingly, modern synthetic dyes are still produced from petroleum, only now the final dyes undergo rigorous testing to ensure there’s no trace left in the final product.
How Food Is Colored
What defines a good food dye? It all comes down to how well the coloring interacts with your product. This is how it works:
Your food coloring must dissolve evenly. Depending on your product, this may mean having a food dye that dissolves well with dairy products or in water. In either case, the die must react with its solute to break down into individual molecules — just like when you stir salt or sugar into a glass of water — it thoroughly mixes to form a homogenous solution.
Another characteristic of a quality food coloring is its ability to maintain its color when dissolved. Food dye keeps its color in a solution — unlike other substances like salt or sugar — because its molecules require less energy to give off color. Food coloring absorbs lower-energy light to produce the visible colors we see with the naked eye.
Why do different foods produce different colors? When you observe color in food, you see the range of visible light not absorbed by the food molecules. The portion of light reflecting off of the food molecules is what reaches your eye and makes you see specific colors.
COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT FOOD COLORING
It’s wise to research the specific ingredients of anything going into your food. The FDA has rigorous testing processes and rules for determining approved food colorings. Here are a few of the questions most commonly asked by consumers:
WHAT CRITERIA DOES THE FDA CONSIDER WHEN DECIDING THE SAFETY OF FOOD COLORING?
The FDA has an extensive list of factors they consider before approving the use of a new food additive.
- The effects of long-term and short-term consumption
- Chemical properties and composition
- Manufacturing standards and processes
- Additive stability
- Amount for consumption
- Availability of testing methods to ensure purity and portions in food
The FDA’s list of approved synthetic color additives is called the “certified colors.” To become an approved synthetic additive, the dyes must pass multiple tests. First, the FDA analyzes the chemical composition of each additive on its own. If it passes the initial inspection, they move on to batch testing — where they test a more significant amount of the additive — similar to an amount that may be in a food product.
Because the requirements to pass these tests are so strict, the FDA has a list of only nine certified color additives:
- FD&C Blue No. 1: baked goods, drinks, cereal, and dairy desserts
- FD&C Blue No. 2: confections, cereal, bars, chips, and yogurts
- FD&C Green No. 3: baked goods, ice cream, and drink mixers
- Orange B: only used in sausage and hot dog casings
- Citrus Red No. 2: only used on orange peels
- FD&C Red No. 3: drinks, frozen dairy, popsicles, and ice cream
- FD&C Red No. 40: drinks, gelatins, pudding, and baked goods
- FD&C Yellow No. 5: baked goods, drinks, cereal, yogurt, and condiments
- FD&C Yellow No. 6: snack foods, cakes, gelatins, drinks, powders, sauces, chips, and crackers
What’s an “exempt” color additive and how is it different than a certified additive?
Any food color additive the FDA defines as “exempt” means they do not subject it to the batch certification test other dyes have to pass. This free-pass is because these dyes come from vegetables, animals, and minerals and are known to be safe for the general population. However, the colorings are still tested by the FDA before their use in food products. Exempt dyes include annatto extract, dehydrated beets, grape skin extract, and beta-carotene.
How do I find out which food dyes and additives are in my foods?
If you’re curious about whether or not your food contains dyes or any other additives, the FDA requires all food manufacturers to list every ingredient on the product label. However, except for some additives that may cause an allergic reaction, individuals dyes can be grouped as “artificial coloring,” so you may not be able to know precisely which colors are inside without contacting the product supplier.
Brenntag for Food Coloring
For any food coloring or additive needs, Brenntag is the industry leader in chemical distribution. We manage supply chains that connect manufacturers and consumers and provide easy access to thousands of products. We have a worldwide network covering 74 countries with more than 530 locations.
At Brenntag Food & Nutrition, we know the importance of creating a well-balanced product — from taste and texture to appearance and shelf-life. We only partner with manufacturers who share the same commitment to excellence that’s earned us our reputation.
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Our team always puts you first — nothing is more important than the satisfaction of our customers. Don't hesitate to message us for any more information you may want about the uses of food coloring in your products — we’re more than happy to answer your questions.