Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Food Colors – Blue Jellybean, anyone?

Last week, we delved into the world of flavoring in foods and the difference between what is termed natural or artificial. Flavors are not the only additive in foods. Colors are another and probably cause even more concern than flavoring. That is why I am devoting this Cooking Tip to the subject of food coloring.

As the adage goes, “we eat first with our eyes”. When food looks attractive, we are more likely to want to eat it. Part of what makes food look appetizing is color. Just think of a plate of food that consists of different colors such as bright veggies, yellow pasta and a colorful sauce. That looks much more enticing than a plate that is all one color, especially if it is a pale color.

Image by Foodie Factor from Pixabay

Some may ask why we need to have colors added to our food at all. Companies do this to give foods more vibrant color, which they hope will lead to more consumer appeal. Colors might only enhance a food’s natural color. Or the other hand, colors can be used to create bright colors in items such as popsicles. Manufacturers also say that adding color helps to offset color loss of the food item due to exposure to light, air, moisture or temperature extremes.

Just as with flavoring, the FDA gets involved with what they term “color additives”. Their definition is:

A color additive is any substance that imparts color to a food, drug, cosmetic, or to the human body. Color additives include both synthetic substances and substances derived from natural sources. Color additives may be used in food to enhance natural colors, add color to colorless and ‘fun’ foods such as cake decorations, and help identify flavors (such as purple for grape flavor or yellow for lemon).

Just as with flavors, colors can be termed natural or artificial. The term “artificial” in food coloring can be misleading as I will explain below. Therefore, a better term is synthetic. To be called natural, the color must come from vegetables, fruits, minerals or animal sources. They are extracted from these sources using chemical solvents. Synthetic colors are created in labs, primarily from petroleum and coal sources.

Just a few examples of natural color sources are:

  • Annatto extract – yellow
  • Dehydrated beets – bluish-red to brown
  • Caramel – yellow to tan
  • Beta-carotene – yellow to orange
  • Grape skin extract – red & green

Natural and synthetic colors have other differences apart from how they are made. Synthetic colors are much more stable and have stronger and more vibrant hues. Synthetic colors can be mixed and matched to produce millions of colors that you cannot get from natural products. Natural colors are more subdued and consumers do not always like that. Natural colors are more expensive and could possibly introduce an unwanted flavor to the product. Synthetic colors are flavorless and less expensive.

You may wonder if these added colors, especially those from synthetic sources, are safe to ingest. You will find many opinions on this matter and it is a decision each of us must make individually. For an article with the most recent statement from the FDA on the safety of color additives, see this link. The colors approved by the FDA are considered by them to be safe as long as they are used according to their regulations, which specify:

  • The types of foods in which it can be used.
  • Any maximum amounts allowed to be used.
  • How the color additive should be identified on the food label.

In addition to FDA approval, any synthetic color additives need to go through a certification process each and every time a new batch of that color is manufactured. If the source of the color is considered natural, it is exempt from this certification process. However, it is not exempt from the requirement of FDA approval. There also may be state-specific restrictions on these color additives.

The FDA has certified 9 colors for use in foods.

  • FD&C Blue No. 1
  • FD&C Blue No. 2
  • FD&C Green No. 3
  • Orange B
  • Citrus Red No. 2 (only approved for use to color orange peels)
  • FD&C Red No. 3
  • FD&C Red No. 40
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6

There are also labeling requirements so consumers know when FDA-certified colors have been added to foods. With certified colors, the name of the actual color (or an abbreviation) must be listed. If the colors are exempt from certification, the ingredient list might just say “artificial colors,” “artificial color added” or “color added”. One exception to this is if carmine or cochineal extract is used. It is a natural red, orange or pink color derived from the cochineal insect. Because there are known allergic reactions in some people, this color must be identified on the ingredient label.

Note that anytime a color is added to a product, whether it is a natural or synthetic colorant, it can be termed “artificial” by the FDA. This is because the manufacturer is intentionally (and artificially) coloring a food beyond what it would be in its natural state.

An example is Coca Cola. It is colored with caramel coloring, which is derived from natural sources. However, it is deemed to be artificially colored as without the caramel color, it would not look like Coca Cola.

In summary, if you thought the world of artificial versus natural flavors was confusing, you may find colors even more so. Just as with flavors, I hope this article simplifies things just a bit for you so you can be the educated and informed consumer we all want to be.