The color of food has always been an important part of its presentation and the experience of eating.
But, food colorings are sneaking into unexpected places and new evidence shows they can be harmful.
Here's some more info about food dyes, how they are regulated, where to find them, potential harms and of course, natural replacements so you can make the most educated decisions for you and your health!
A brief history of food coloring
But foods are naturally colorful. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution when people started to mass produce foods that we found a need for added colors. The mass production and longer storage resulted in dulled or altered colors. To make the processed foods more palatable, we colored them.
Originally, these colors were made from coal-based pigments then later shifted to petroleum-based pigments. While some pigments in the early 20th-century were made of heavy metals like lead or mercury, those were restricted in 1906 due to negative effects. That’s when the US had our first list of approved colors which was further updated to restrict against cancer-causing colors in the 1960s.
What artificial colors are we likely to come into contact with?
9 permitted colors
There are 9 artificial colors permitted by the FDA today, listed below. The requirement is that each batch of these colors is tested by the FDA. Note, the FDA does not regulate natural colors and not all of these ingredients need to be listed on ingredients labels.
- Blue 1
- Blue 2
- Citrus Red 2
- Green 3
- Orange B (no longer used)
- Red 3
- Red 40
- Yellow 5
- Yellow 6
Colors that are exempt from certification by the FDA:
- annatto extract (yellow)
- dehydrated beets (bluish-red to brown)
- caramel (yellow to tan)
- beta-carotene (yellow to orange)
- grape skin extract (red, green).
What are the potential harms of artificial colors and food dyes?
Here are the main concerns with artificial colorings
- Cancerous tumors of the bladder, thyroid and other organs
- Genotoxicity (ability to mutate DNA)
- Exacerbated hives and asthma
- Irritability and trouble sleeping
- Hyperactivity / ADD / ADHD
- Aluminum contamination (this applies to both natural and artificial colors)
- Negative impact on male fertility
- Contaminated with carcinogens like benzidine
- Hypersensitivity reactions
- Irritable bowel syndrome
The largest and most studied concern with artificial colorings is a link to behavioral conditions like hyperactivity, ADD, and ADHD.
Tartrazine (FD&C Yellow No. 5) dose-based testing in children resulted in behavioral symptoms like irritability and trouble sleeping.
Other negative indications: inhibition of nerve-cell development, possible brain tumors, bladder tumors, thyroid tumors, possible reticuloendothelial tumors of the immune system, possible adrenal and testicular tumors, irritable bowel syndrome, and general toxicity.
Limitations of our knowledge
FDA studies account for just one food, not necessarily multiple exposures to multiple foods with many colorants. Individual analysis on individual dyes is likely to miss synergistic effects from dye mixtures.
Some of these symptoms are exacerbated when combined with other ingredients or drugs like aspirin. More studies that mimic a true eating environment would likely be needed to understand the full impact of these colors on our health.
We've likely underestimated risks through early studies because they were cut off at 2 years which is at least one year earlier than we'd expect to see cancers in rats that would correlate to human cancers.
Additionally many of these studies were run by the chemical industry. Ideally, these dyes would be tested by independent researchers.
Where are artificial colors and food dyes?
We can see many sources or food colorings walking down any grocery aisle. Colored cereals like fruit loops and candies like sour patch kids and gummy worms might be more obvious. But they appear in all sorts of processed goods.
From strawberry sauce to farmed salmon, there are often coloring agents hiding in your food.
Even if you avoid the most obvious sources like candies and sugary cereals, you’re probably eating more dyes than you realize.
Exposure increased 5-fold for Americans between 1955 and the time of this study 2010. Now our collective exposure is likely even higher.
- Hard candy like lollipops
- Gummy bears and worms
- Candy like skittles, M&Ms, sour patch kids, Jolly ranchers, starburst etc.
- Sprinkles or Jimmies
- Sports drinks like Gatorade and pedialite
- Boxed macaroni
Some colors don’t need to be declared, so you could be eating them without having any idea! Here are some foods that you might be surprised would have food dyes added to change the color.
- Vanilla Ice Cream is often flavored with annato.
- Balsamic Vinegar is often flavored with caramel color
- Health/Energy/Meal Replacement/Granola bars
- Alcohol: Many bitters like classic old fashioned bitters and liquors like aperol, Campari, and chartreuse have food coloring added.
- Oranges: Did you know they actually dip some oranges in artificial coloring to make them more uniform? Who would have expected fresh whole foods to be colored? Maybe opt for organic oranges if you plan on zesting or using the peels for garnish.
- Dairy Products: In the US, coloring in cheese, butter and ice cream doesn’t need to be declared unless there is a separate listing requirement for that specific combo of product and colorant. So basically you can eat it without even knowing!
- Microwave popcorn
- Sandwich bread
- Bottled Salad Dressing
- Farmed Salmon (colored by astaxanthin in its feed)
Fun fact, Aperol and Campari used to be colored with an insect-derived pigment cochineal that was replaced with the petroleum versions. You can find some brands like Leopold's Aperitivo that do not use the artificial color.
What are the alternatives?
The good news is that there are alternatives! And safe ways to enjoy a little extra color in your food.
You don't have to live in a world of bland colorless food. In fact, if you eat whole foods your food will be much more vibrant than any processed and artificially colored food you can get at the store.
However, we still want to indulge in beautiful cookies and cakes from time to time. So how do we do that more naturally with less of a health risk?
The best option is to use whole or powdered foods to color your recipes at home. The less processing required in the process the less likely it is to be contaminated.
My favorite natural color options are:
- Red: Beet powder or strawberry or raspberry juice or pomegranate juice*
- Blue: Butterfly pea flower powder
- Purple: Butterfly pea flower powder plus a dash of lemon juice
- Green: Moringa or matcha
- Yellow: Turmeric
- Brown: Cacao powder
- Orange: Turmeric and beet powder
*the fruit juice will be a stronger dye if slightly reduced. You can do this by leaving the juice in a shallow bowl overnight uncovered. Evaporation will leave thicker juice concentrate. Alternatively, you can cook the juice to evaporate excess water and thicken the juice concentrate. Below is buttercream colored with pomegranate juice that thickened by sitting out overnight and reducing in half.
I use these natural food colorings in the following recipes with great success:
What's the best store-bought option:
I know that making everything from scratch at home is not feasible for many and feels mainly liek a huge pain for others. The good news is that natural food colorings and sprinkles are making their way onto the market.
You can find sprinkles and food dyes that are colored naturally with food elements like turmeric, beet juice and with nutritional bacteria like spirulina.
How is this different in other countries?
First of all, color regulation is very complicated and it may be the most highly regulated part of the food world. However, there is still contention around whether the regulations are strict enough and the rules vary greatly under different governments.
For example, the EU and the US handle colors very differently. In Europe, anything with added colors must also carry a disclaimer that it causes hyperactivity in kids and they have to prove a need for the color while also proving that the color additive is not misleading. It has also divided the regulatory arms for checks and balances. In the US, companies requesting color additives only have to pass safety standards and the same group that makes the rules reviews how good the rules are.
Some other differences between the US and the EU related to color additives.
In the EU, they blanketly prohibit colors in traditional foods like bread milk and cheese. In the US we line item every food product and allow more colorants. For example, the US FDA permits coloring in cheddar cheese but not cottage cheese.
The good news, is both the EU and the US are moving towards natural colorings, however, this seems to be more consumer-led than regulation-led. However, natural coloring is not a word recognized by either government, mainly because even naturally occurring colors like beta carotene can be synthesized in a lab and set in aluminum for cheaper production.
I recommend following The Food Babe on Instagram to see the different ingredients used by the same brands here and in other countries. It's shocking and disappointing.