Bright orange cheese crackers, ice cream, colored eggs and cakes for Super Bowl parties with icing dyed in team colors ‒ all are just a few of the hundreds of food items that have food color added to them. Humans are visual creatures who are attracted to colors in the world, and food colorings satisfy that need for visual stimulation. Dyes from both natural and artificial sources appear most often, but not entirely, in processed foods. Humans have been enhancing foods with dyes for centuries, with no end in sight.
Know the Types of Color Additives
Both natural and artificial color additives come in forms that dissolve in water, called “dyes,” or that are water insoluble, called “lakes.” Dyes include powders, granules or liquids, and they’re added to beverages, pet foods, dairy products and a host of other foods. Lakes are more stable in foods that have fats and oils or that don’t contain enough liquid for a dye to dissolve. These include coated tablets, hard candies and chewing gum.
Enjoy Natural Food Coloring
Most natural food colorings come from the chemicals that already appear in certain foods. For example, carotenoids that turn foods red, yellow or orange come from substances like beta-carotene, the same chemical in sweet potatoes and pumpkins.
Turmeric comes from the underground stems of the turmeric plant, and it provides the deep yellow of mustard and other foods. Not only does turmeric color food, but it has some health benefits as well. Studies have demonstrated turmeric’s ability to reduce your risk of colon cancer, relieve pain from arthritis and decrease your risk of heart attack after bypass surgery.
Be Aware of Artificial Substances
Like medicines, artificial food colorings come with warnings. Yellow dye No. 5, for instance, may cause hives in some people. And some children have negative behavioral symptoms from certain artificial food colors, although a definitive link between hyperactivity and food coloring has not been made, according to the FDA.
Made mostly from petroleum oil, artificial food colorings are manufactured, so no traces of oil remain. The additives come in seven colors approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, including red, blue, turquoise, yellow, orange, pink and indigo. Indigo, the dye used in blue jeans, is made from a synthetic version of a natural dye.
Look to the Future
Food manufacturers are searching for new food colorings, both natural and artificial, to solve problems with the current ones. Cochineal, the red food coloring currently made from crushed bugs, is being replaced by chemicals from purple sweet potatoes. Cochineal is a natural, albeit yucky, coloring source, but it can also cause a severe allergic reaction, called anaphylactic shock. And the American Chemical Society reported in 2015 that scientists are working on “Food Finish,” an edible spray paint, in red, blue, gold and silver that you can spray on any food.
- American Chemical Society: Eating With Your Eyes: The Chemistry of Food Colorings
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors
- Cable News Network: Are the health Benefits of Turmeric Too Good to Be true?
- Nutrition Reviews: Mechanisms of Behavioral, Atopic, and Other Reactions to Artificial Food Colors in Children
- National Geographic: Scientists Make Red Food Dye From Potatoes, Not Bugs
Susan Lundman began writing about her love of cooking, ingredient choices, menu planning and healthy eating after working for 20 years on children's issues at a nonprofit organization. She has written about food online professionally for ten years on numerous websites, and has provided family and friends with homemade recipes and stories about culinary adventures. Lundman received her M.A. from Stanford University.