Food coloring

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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[edit]

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]

Color additives are recognized as an important part of many foods we eat.[4]


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).[5] Most other countries have their own regulations and list of food colors which can be used in various applications, including maximum daily intake limits.

Natural colors are not required to be certified by a number of regulatory bodies throughout the world, including the United States FDA. 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. 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.

Artificial coloring[edit]

Artificial food coloring is derived from coal tar and petroleum.[6][4]

In the United States[edit]

Seven dyes were initially approved under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, but several have been delisted and replacements have been found.[7] Some of the food colorings have the abbreviation "FCF" in their names. This stands for "For Coloring Food" (US)[8] or "For Colouring of Food" (UK).[9]

Current seven[edit]

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

Limited use[edit]

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

Delisted and banned[edit]

Other locations[edit]

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 [1]. Some artificial dyes approved for food use in the EU include:

Natural food dyes[edit]

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. 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. Residues of these often remain in the finished product, but they do not need to be declared on the product; this is because they are part of a group of substances known as carry-over ingredients.

Natural food colors, due to their organic nature, can sometimes cause allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock in sensitive individuals. Coloring agents known to be potential hazards include annatto, cochineal and carmine.[citation needed]

Dyes and lakes[edit]

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[edit]

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.[13]

Criticism and health implications[edit]

Information concerning the negative effects of synthetic food colorants on human health, particularly children’s health, continues to be a major concern with respect to food chemistry. Though past research showed no correlation between attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and food dyes,[14][15] new studies now point to synthetic preservatives and artificial coloring agents as aggravating ADD and ADHD symptoms, both in those affected by these disorders and in the general population.[16][17] Older studies were inconclusive, quite possibly due to inadequate clinical methods of measuring offending behavior. Parental reports were more accurate indicators of the presence of additives than clinical tests.[18] Several major studies show academic performance increased and disciplinary problems decreased in large non-ADD student populations when artificial ingredients, including artificial colors, were eliminated from school food programs.[19][20]

This criticism originated during the 1950s. As a result, many foods that used dye (such as red velvet cake) became less popular.[citation needed]

Brilliant Blue (BBG) food coloring was cited in a recent study in which rats that had suffered a spinal injury were given an injection of the dye immediately after the injury, and were able to regain or retain motor control. BBG helps protect spine from ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which the body sends to the area after a spinal injury, which further damages the spine by killing motor neurons at the site of the injury.[23]

Researchers at King Feisal University state that the use of synthetic color in various foods has adverse effects on some of biochemical analysis, specifically at high concentration and when administered for long periods of time. Changes in liver and kidney histopathological structure and increases in white blood cell count indicated that inflammation is specific to certain colorants.[24]

See also[edit]


  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". Food Quality and Preference 14 (2): 137–146. doi:10.1016/S0950-3293(03)00041-7. 
  3. ^ "Food Ingredients & Colors". International Food Information Council. June 29, 2010. Retrieved Feb 15 2012. 
  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 02 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. ^ "Current EU approved additives and their E Numbers". Food Standards Agency. 26 Nov 2010. Retrieved 20 Feb 2012. 
  6. ^ Hancock, Mary (1997). "Potential for Colourants from Plant Sources in England & Wales". 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." 
  7. ^ 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, Tuesday. "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." 
  8. ^ Academic scientists and the pharmaceutical industry
  9. ^ Cannon, Geoffrey (1988). The politics of food. London: Century. p. 161. ISBN 0-7126-1717-5. [better source needed]
  10. ^ "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." 
  11. ^ a b c d e "Food coloring". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "Among the colours that have been “delisted,” or disallowed, in the United States are FD&C Orange No. 1; FD&C Red No. 32; FD&C Yellows No. 1, 2, 3, and 4; FD&C Violet No. 1; and FD&C Reds No. 2 and 4. Many countries with similar food colouring controls (including Canada and Great Britain) also ban the use of Red No. 40, and Yellow No. 5 is also undergoing testing." 
  12. ^ CFR Title 21 Part 81.10: Termination of provisional listings of color additives.
  13. ^ "Dye Wool Yarn With Food Colors". 
  14. ^ Wilens TE, Biederman J, Spencer TJ. Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder across the lifespan. Annual Review of Medicine, 2002:53:113–131
  15. ^ The MTA Cooperative Group. A 14-month randomized clinical trial of treatment strategies for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Archives of General Psychiatry, 1999;56:1073–1086
  16. ^ "Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial", Lancet, Sept 2007
  17. ^ 1997 Graduate Student Research Project conducted at the University of South Florida. Author: Richard W. Pressinger M.Ed.
  18. ^ "Food Additives May Affect Kids' Hyperactivity", WebMD Medical News, May 24, 2004.
  19. ^ "A different kind of school lunch", PURE FACTS, October 2002
  20. ^ "The Impact of a Low Food Additive and Sucrose Diet on Academic Performance in 803 New York City Public Schools," Schoenthaler SJ, Doraz WE, Wakefield JA, Int J Biosocial Res., 1986, 8(2); 185–195
  21. ^ "FDA/CFSAN Food Color Facts". Food and Drug Administration. Archived from the original on 2006-08-18. Retrieved 2006-09-07. 
  22. ^ Jpn J Cancer Res. 1988 Mar; 79(3):314–9
  23. ^ "Same blue dye in M&Ms linked to reducing spine injury - CNN. com". CNN. 2009-07-28. Retrieved 2010-05-02. 
  24. ^ Soltan, Sahar S. A.; Shehata, Manal M. E. M. (July 2012). "The Effects of Using Color Foods of Children on Immunity Properties and Liver, Kidney on Rats". Food and Nutrition Sciences (Scientific Research) 3 (7): 897–904. doi:10.4236/fns.2012.37119. ISSN 2157-9458. Retrieved 27 Nov 2012. 

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