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Food coloring

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Food coloring

Food coloring spreading on a thin water film in the International Space Station

Food coloring, or color additive, is any dye, pigment or substance that imparts color when it is added to food or drink. They come in many forms consisting of liquids, powders, gels, and pastes. Food coloring is used both in commercial food production and in domestic cooking. Due to its safety and general availability, food coloring is also used in a variety of non-food applications including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, home craft projects and medical devices.[1]


  • Purpose of food coloring 1
  • Regulation 2
    • Past use and regulation history 2.1
    • Current regulation 2.2
    • Global harmonization 2.3
  • Artificial coloring 3
    • In the United States 3.1
      • Current seven 3.1.1
      • Limited use 3.1.2
      • Delisted and banned 3.1.3
    • Other locations 3.2
  • Natural food dyes 4
  • Dyes and lakes 5
  • Other uses 6
  • Criticism and health implications 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Purpose of food coloring

People associate certain colors with certain flavors, and the color of food can influence the perceived flavor in anything from candy to wine.[2] Sometimes the aim is to simulate a color that is perceived by the consumer as natural, such as adding red coloring to glacé cherries (which would otherwise be beige), but sometimes it is for effect, like the green ketchup that Heinz launched in 1999. Color additives are used in foods for many reasons including:[3][4]

  • Offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions
  • Correct natural variations in color
  • Enhance colors that occur naturally
  • Provide color to colorless and "fun" foods
  • Make food more attractive and appetizing, and informative
  • Allow consumers to identify products on sight, like candy flavors or medicine dosages


Past use and regulation history

The addition of colorants to foods is thought to have occurred in Egyptian cities as early as 1500 BC, when candy makers added natural extracts and wine to improve the products' appearance.[5] During the Middle Ages, the economy in the European countries was based on agriculture, and the peasants were accustomed to producing their own food locally or trading within the village communities. Under feudalism, foodstuffs were mainly regarded as means to survive. Aesthetic aspects were not considered, at least not by the vast majority of the generally very poor population.[6] This situation changed with urbanization at the beginning of the Modern Age, when trade emerged—especially the import of precious spices and colors from climatically favored countries. One of the very first food laws, created in Augsburg, Germany, in 1531, concerned spices or colorants and required saffron counterfeiters to be burned.[7]

With the onset of the industrial revolution, thousands of people began to move to the new centers of industrialization. The act of feeding these workers changed fundamentally; suddenly, they became dependent on foods produced and sold by others.[6] These new urban dwellers demanded food at low cost. Analytical chemistry was still in the process of development; on this basis, and especially in the absence of legal or administrative obstacles, the [8]

  • Red lead (Pb3O4) and vermillion (HgS) were routinely used to color cheese and confectionery.
  • Copper arsenite (CuHAsO3) was used to recolor used tea leaves for resale. It also caused two deaths when used to color a dessert in 1860.

Sellers at the time offered more than 80 artificial coloring agents, some intended for dyeing textiles, not foods.[8]

...Thus, with potted meat, fish and sauces taken at breakfast he would consume more or less Armenian bole, red lead, or even bisulphuret of mercury. At dinner with his curry or cayenne he would run the chance of a second dose of lead or mercury; with pickles, bottled fruit and vegetables he would be nearly sure to have copper administrated to him; and while he partook of bon-bons at dessert, there was no telling of the number of poisonous pigments he might consume. Again his tea if mixed or green, he would certainly not escape without the administration of a little Prussian blue...[9]

Many color additives had never been tested for toxicity or other adverse effects. Historical records show that injuries, even deaths, resulted from tainted colorants. In 1851, about 200 people were poisoned in England, 17 of them fatally, directly as a result of eating adulterated lozenges.[6] In 1856, mauveine, the first synthetic color, was developed by Sir William Henry Perkin and by the turn of the century, unmonitored color additives had spread through Europe and the United States in all sorts of popular foods, including ketchup, mustard, jellies, and wine.[10]

But as their use grew, so did safety concerns. This led to numerous regulations throughout the world, with each country developing their own legislation. German food regulations released in 1882 stipulated the exclusion of dangerous minerals such as arsenic, copper, chromium, lead, mercury and zinc, which were frequently used as colorants.[11] In contrast to today, these first laws followed the principle of a negative listing (substances not allowed for use); they were already driven by the main principles of today's food regulations all over the world, since all of these regulations follow the same goal: the protection of consumers from toxic substances and from fraud.[6] In the United States, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 reduced the permitted list of synthetic colors from 700 down to seven.[12] Even with updated food laws, adulteration continued for many years and this, together with more recent adverse press comments on food colors and health, has continued to contribute to consumer concern about color addition to foodstuffs.

In the 20th century, the improvement of chemical analysis and the development of trials to identify the toxic features of substances added to foods led to the replacement of the negative lists by lists of substances allowed to be used for the production and the improvement of foods. This principle is called a positive listing, and almost all recent legislations are based on it.[6] Positive listing implies that substances meant for human consumption have been tested for their safety, and that they have to meet specified purity criteria prior to their approval by the corresponding authorities. In 1962, the first EU directive (62/2645/EEC) approved 36 colorants, of which 20 were naturally derived and 16 were synthetic.[13] This directive did not list which food products the colorants could or could not be used in. At that time, each member state could designate where certain colors could and could not be used. In Germany, for example, quinoline yellow was allowed in puddings and desserts, but tartrazine was not. The reverse was true in France.[7] This was updated in 1989 with 89/107/EEC, which concerned food additives authorized for use in foodstuffs.[14]

Current regulation

While naturally derived colors are not required to be certified by a number of regulatory bodies throughout the world (including the FDA), they still need to be approved for use in that country. The FDA lists "color additives exempt from certification" for food in subpart A of the Code of Federal Regulations - Title 21 Part 73. However, this list contains substances which may have synthetic origins, such as nature identical beta-carotene. FDA's permitted colors are classified as subject to certification or exempt from certification, both of which are subject to rigorous safety standards prior to their approval and listing for use in foods.

  • Certified colors are synthetically produced and are used widely because they impart an intense, uniform color, are less expensive, and blend more easily to create a variety of hues. There are nine certified color additives approved for use in the United States. Certified food colors generally do not add undesirable flavors to foods.
  • Colors that are exempt from certification include pigments derived from natural sources such as vegetables, minerals or animals. Nature derived color additives are typically more expensive than certified colors and may add unintended flavors to foods. Examples of exempt colors include annatto, beet extract, caramel, beta-carotene, turmeric and grape skin extract.

Food colorings are tested for safety by various bodies around the world and sometimes different bodies have different views on food color safety. In the United States, FD&C numbers (which indicate that the FDA has approved the colorant for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics) are given to approved synthetic food dyes that do not exist in nature, while in the European Union, E numbers are used for all additives, both synthetic and natural, that are approved in food applications. The food colors are known by E numbers that begin with a 1, such as E100 (turmeric) or E161b (lutein).[15] The safety of food colors and other food additives in the EU is evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority. Color Directive 94/36/EC, enacted by the European Commission in 1994, outlines permitted natural and artificial colors with their approved applications and limits in different foodstuffs.[7] This is binding to all member countries of the EU. Any changes have to be implemented into their national laws within a given time frame. In non-EU member states, food additives are regulated by their national authorities, which usually, but not in all cases, try to harmonize with the laws adopted by the EU. Most other countries have their own regulations and list of food colors which can be used in various applications, including maximum daily intake limits.

Global harmonization

Global trade requires harmonization of food regulations on a world-wide basis in order to abolish barriers of trade and to ensure that the economic and nutritional demands of all nations are considered. Since the beginning of the 1960s, JECFA has played an important role in the development of international standards for food additives, not only by its toxicological assessments, which are continuously published by the WHO in a "Technical Report Series", but furthermore by elaborating appropriate purity criteria, which are laid down in the two volumes of the "Compendium of Food Additive Specifications" and their supplements. These specifications are not legally binding but very often serve as a guiding principle, especially in countries where no own scientific expert committees have been established.[6]

In order to further regulate the use of these evaluated additives, in 1962 the WHO and FAO created an international commission, the GATT), the Codex Standard, although not legally binding, influences food color regulations all over the world.[6]

Artificial coloring

As the 1900s began, the bulk of chemically synthesized colors were derived from aniline, a petroleum product that is toxic.[4] Originally, these were dubbed `coal-tar' colors because the starting materials were obtained from bituminous coal.[16] Though colors from plant, animal and mineral sources, which had been used in earlier times, remained in use early in this century, manufacturers had strong economic incentives to phase them out. Chemically synthesized colors are easier and less costly to produce, and are superior in coloring properties. Synthetic colors are also highly concentrated, there are no limits on dosage level, and they are widely available.[8]

In the United States

Seven dyes were initially approved under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, but several have been delisted and replacements have been found.[17] Some of the food colorings have the abbreviation "FCF" in their names. This stands for "For Coloring Food" (US)[18] or "For Colouring of Food" (UK).[19]

Current seven

In the US, the following seven artificial colorings are permitted in food (the most common in bold) as of 2007:

Limited use

The following dyes are only allowed by the FDA for specific limited applications:

Delisted and banned

Other locations

As stated above, most other countries have their own regulations and list of food colors which can be used in various applications, including maximum daily intake limits. In the EU, E numbers 102-143 cover the range of artificial colors. For an overview of currently allowed additives see here [2]. Some artificial dyes approved for food use in the EU include:

Natural food dyes

Natural food colors can make a variety of different hues

A growing number of natural food dyes are being commercially produced, partly due to consumer concerns surrounding synthetic dyes.[23] Some examples include:

To ensure reproducibility, the colored components of these substances are often provided in highly purified form, and for increased stability and convenience, they can be formulated in suitable carrier materials (solid and liquids). Hexane, acetone and other solvents break down cell walls in the fruit and vegetables and allow for maximum extraction of the coloring. Traces of these may still remain in the finished colorant, but they do not need to be declared on the product label; this is because they are part of a group of substances known as carry-over ingredients.

Food colorants can sometimes cause allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock in sensitive individuals. Natural coloring agents known to be potential hazards include annatto, cochineal and carmine.

Dyes and lakes

Color additives are available for use in food as either "dyes" or lake pigments (commonly known as "lakes").

Dyes dissolve in water, but are not soluble in oil. Dyes are manufactured as powders, granules, liquids or other special purpose forms. They can be used in beverages, dry mixes, baked goods, confections, dairy products, pet foods, and a variety of other products. Dyes also have side effects which lakes do not, including the fact that large amounts of dyes ingested can color stools.

Lakes are made by combining dyes with salts to make insoluble compounds. Lakes tint by dispersion. Lakes are not oil-soluble, but are oil-dispersible. Lakes are more stable than dyes and are ideal for coloring products containing fats and oils or items lacking sufficient moisture to dissolve dyes. Typical uses include coated tablets, cake and doughnut mixes, hard candies and chewing gums, lipsticks, soaps, shampoos, talc, etc.

Other uses

Because food dyes are generally safer to use than normal artists' dyes and pigments, some artists have used food coloring as a means of making pictures, especially in forms such as body-painting. Red food dye is often used in theatrical blood.

Most artificial food colorings are a type of acid dye, and can be used to dye protein fibers and nylon with the addition of an acid. They are all washfast and most are also lightfast. They will not permanently bond to plant fibers and other synthetics.[24]

Criticism and health implications

Since the 1970s and the well-publicized advocacy of Benjamin Feingold, there has been public concern that food colorings may cause ADHD-like behavior in children.[25] These concerns have led the US FDA and other food safety authorities to regularly review the scientific literature, and led the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) to commission a study by researchers at Southampton University of the effect of a mixture of six food dyes (Tartrazine, Allura Red, Ponceau 4R, Quinoline Yellow WS, Sunset Yellow and Carmoisine (dubbed the "Southampton 6")) and sodium benzoate (a preservative) on children in the general population, who consumed them in beverages; the study published in 2007.[25][26] The study found "a possible link between the consumption of these artificial colours and a sodium benzoate preservative and increased hyperactivity" in the children;[25][26] the advisory committee to the FSA that evaluated the study also determined that because of study limitations, the results could not be extrapolated to the general population, and further testing was recommended".[25]

The European regulatory community, with a stronger emphasis on the precautionary principle, required labelling and temporarily reduced the acceptable daily intake (ADI) for the food colorings; the UK FSA called for voluntary withdrawal of the colorings by food manufacturers.[25][26] However, in 2009 the EFSA re-evaluated the data at hand and determined that "the available scientific evidence does not substantiate a link between the color additives and behavioral effects" for any of the dyes.[25][27][28][29][30]

The US FDA did not make changes following the publication of the Southhampton study, but following a citizen petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 2008, requesting the FDA ban several food additives, the FDA reviewed the available evidence, and still made no changes.[25]

There is no evidence to support broad claims that food coloring causes food intolerance and ADHD-like behavior in children.[31]:452 It is possible that certain food coloring may act as a trigger in those who are genetically predisposed, but the evidence is weak.[25][32]

See also


  1. ^ CFR Title 21 Part 70: Color Additive Regulations, FDA, retrieved Feb 15, 2012 
  2. ^ Jeannine Delwiche (2003). "The impact of perceptual interactions on perceived flavor" (PDF). Food Quality and Preference 14 (2): 137–146.  
  3. ^ "Food Ingredients & Colors".  
  4. ^ a b Barrows, Julie N.; Lipman, Arthur L.; Bailey, Catherine J. (17 Dec 2009). "Color Additives: FDA's Regulatory Process and Historical Perspectives". FDA (Reprinted from Food Safety Magazine October/November 2003 issue). Retrieved 2 Mar 2012. Although certifiable color additives have been called coal-tar colors because of their traditional origins, today they are synthesized mainly from raw materials obtained from petroleum. 
  5. ^ Meggos, H. (1995). "Food colours: an international perspective". The Manufacturing Confectioner. pp. 59–65. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Arlt, Ulrike (29 Apr 2011). "The Legislation of Food Colours in Europe". The Natural Food Colours Association. Retrieved 18 Feb 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c Cook, Jim. "Colorants Compliance". The World of Food Ingredients (Arnhem, The Netherlands: CNS Media BV) (Sept 2013): 41–43.  
  8. ^ a b c Downham, Alison; Collins, Paul (2000). "Colouring our foods in the last and next millennium" (PDF). International Journal of Food Science and Technology (Blackwell Science Ltd) 35: 5–22.  
  9. ^ Hassel, A.H. (1960). Amos, Arthur James, ed. Pure Food and Pure Food Legislation. Butterworths, London. 
  10. ^ Walford, J. (1980). "Historical Development of Food Colouration". Developments in Food Colours (London: Applied Science Publishers) 1: 1–25. 
  11. ^ Hastings, Robert W. (January–March 1898). Hamilton, John B., ed. "Human Food Laws". Journal of the American Medical Association (Chicago: American Medical Association) 30 (1-13): 419–421.  
  12. ^ Meadows, Michelle (2006). "A Century of Ensuring Safe Foods and Cosmetics". FDA Consumer magazine (FDA) (January–February). Retrieved 21 Feb 2014. 
  13. ^ EEC: Council Directive on the approximation of the rules of the Member States concerning the colouring matters authorized for use in foodstuffs intended for human consumption OJ 115, 11.11.1962, p. 2645–2654 (DE, FR, IT, NL) English special edition: Series I Volume 1959-1962 p. 279–290
  14. ^ Council Directive 89/107/EEC of 21 December 1988 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States concerning food additives authorized for use in foodstuffs intended for human consumption OJ L 40, 11.2.1989, p. 27–33 (ES, DA, DE, EL, EN, FR, IT, NL, PT)
  15. ^ "Current EU approved additives and their E Numbers".  
  16. ^ Hancock, Mary (1997). "Potential for Colourants from Plant Sources in England & Wales" (PDF). UK Central Science Laboratory. Retrieved 20 January 2013. The use of natural dyes in the UK and the rest of the Western economies has been replaced commercially by synthetic dyes, based mainly on aniline and using petroleum or coal tar as the raw stock. 
  17. ^ a b c d "News of Food; U.S. May Outlaw Dyes Used to Tint Oranges and Other Foods". New York Times. January 19, 1954. The use of artificial colors to make foods more attractive to the eye may be sharply curtailed by action of the United States Food and Drug Administration. Three of the most extensively used coal tar dyes are being considered for removal from the Government's list of colors certified as safe for internal and external use and consumption. 
  18. ^ Academic scientists and the pharmaceutical industry
  19. ^ Cannon, Geoffrey (1988). The politics of food. London: Century. p. 161.  
  20. ^ "Red No. 3 and Other Colorful Controversies". FDA. Archived from the original on 2007-08-09. Retrieved 2007-08-26. FDA terminated the provisional listings for FD&C Red No. 3 on January 29, 1990, at the conclusion of its review of the 200 straight colors on the 1960 provisional list. Commonly called erythrosine, FD&C Red No. 3 is a tint that imparts a watermelon-red color and was one of the original seven colors on Hesse's list. 
  21. ^ a b c d e "Food coloring".  
  22. ^ CFR Title 21 Part 81.10: Termination of provisional listings of color additives.
  23. ^ Matsumura, Yuki (June 2014). "Artificial Colors and Health Concerns". Retrieved 23 Apr 2015. 
  24. ^ "Dye Wool Yarn With Food Colors". 
  25. ^ a b c d e f g h FDA. Background Document for the Food Advisory Committee: Certified Color Additives in Food and Possible Association with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children: March 30-31, 2011
  26. ^ a b c Sarah Chapman of Chapman Technologies on behalf of Food Standards Agency in Scotland. March 2011 [Guidelines on approaches to the replacement of Tartrazine, Allura Red, Ponceau 4R, Quinoline Yellow, Sunset Yellow and Carmoisine in food and beverages]
  27. ^ EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to food (ANS) Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of Sunset Yellow FCF (E 110) as a food additive. EFSA Journal 2009; 7(11):1330 doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2009.1330
  28. ^ EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS) 091113 Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of Ponceau 4R (E 124) as a food additive EFSA Journal 2009; 7(11):1328
  29. ^ EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to food (ANS). Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation of Quinoline Yellow (E 104) as a food additive. EFSA Journal 2009; 7(11):1329 [40 pp.]. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2009.1329
  30. ^ EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS) (November 2009). "Scientific Opinion on the re-evaluation Tartrazine (E 102)". EFSA Journal 7 (11): 1331–1382.  
  31. ^ Tomaska LD and Brooke-Taylor, S. Food Additives - General pp 449-454 in Encyclopedia of Food Safety, Vol 2: Hazards and Diseases. Eds, Motarjemi Y et al. Academic Press, 2013. ISBN 9780123786135
  32. ^ Millichap JG, Yee MM (February 2012). "The diet factor in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder". Pediatrics 129 (2): 330–337.  

External links

  • Food coloring at Encyclopædia Britannica
  • FDA/CFSAN Food Color Facts
  • Natural Food Colors (Food-Info)
  • Report on the Certification of Color Additives by US FDA
  • NATCOL: What are natural food colours?
  • CSPI: Food Dyes Pose Rainbow of Risks
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