Debra Lynn Dadd

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Food Colors

Food colors may seem like a small, insignificant exposure to a toxic substance, but it is not. Certainly, they are not as harmful to health as most pesticides, for example, or cleaning products, but they can affect your health for the worse, nonetheless.

Why food colors?

The color of a food adds to our enjoyment of eating it. In Nature, the color of a food often indicates whether or not it is good to eat. We learn to tell that a green tomato is still growing and a red tomato will be ripe, juicy, and sweet. We also learn that a brightly colored mushroom is probably poisonous.

We come to expect foods to be certain colors, those they are in Nature. We expect a peach to be orange, not blue, and lemons to be yellow, not green. Much of our acceptance of foods is dependent on foods being the colors we expect.

In pre-industrial times, people who lived closer to Nature understood that the colors of foods can be different from season to season. If you are making butter, for example, from milk from your own cow, you will see that the butter varies in color during different times of year, depending on what the cow is eating.

But in our industrialized consumer world, we have come to expect everything to be the same, the same, the same, regardless of the season. If you were to open your favorite brand of butter and see it was a different color than you expected, you would probably think there was something wrong with it.

And so, for uniformity as well as appeal, food colorings are used. And for fun--colorings can give otherwise colorless foods a festive appearance.

Food colors have been in use for centuries. Saffron and other spices were often used to provide color to various foods as well as flavor.

There's nothing inherently wrong or unhealthy about adding color to food. The problem lies in the type of coloring used.

Artificial colors

Most colorings used today are artificial, that is, made from petrochemical coal-tar dyes. In 1900, there were no regulations on food colors. Any of over 80 dyes could be used to color everything from cloth to candy. In 1906, the first comprehensive legislation was passed for seven colors, which were composed of known ingredients which showed no harmful effects.

Without going into every detail of the history of food colors, suffice it to say that over the years, new colors were added and some were delisted. Many have been found to cause cancer. Other observed health effects include behavior changes and learning disabilities.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends, "Because colorings are used almost solely in foods of low nutritional value (candy, soda pop, gelatin desserts, etc.), you should simply avoid all artificially colored foods."

You can easily recognize an artificial color on a food label. It will say either "artificial color" or specifically "FD&C [color] No. [number]." It's important to read labels carefully, as artificial colors may be found in common foods that your wouldn't suspect. Virtually all pickles sold in supermarkets, for example, contain artificial colors.

Currently, the use of artificial colors in foods is limited to the following (all are approved for use in foods generally unless otherwise noted):

  • FD&C Blue No. 1
  • FD&C Blue No. 2
  • FD&C Green No. 3
  • Orange B (approved only for the casings or surfaces of frankfurters and sausages)
  • Citrus Red No. 2 (approved only for the skins of oranges not intended or used for processing).
  • FD&C Red No. 3
  • FD&C Red No 40
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6

Natural food colors

Many natural colors are used in foods sold in both supermarkets and natural food stores. Green pasta and tortillas, for example, are naturally green because they contain spinach. Other colored pastas get their colors from other vegetable juices.

But there is also a list of colors from natural sources that are used to color a wide variety of foods.

These colors from natural sources are currently used in foods (all are approved for use in foods generally unless otherwise noted; all are generally recognized as safe, even those approved for limited use):

  • Annatto extract--yellow color from a tropical tree
  • Dehydrated beets (beet powder)--red-pink color from beets .
  • Canthaxanthin--pink color from mushrooms, crustaceans, trout and salmon, and tropical birds
  • Caramel--brown color made from burnt sugar
  • Carotene--yellow color from carrots
  • Carmine extract (aka Cochineal)--red color derived from a species of beetle that feeds on cacti
  • Sodium copper chlorophyllin--green color from plants and copper
  • Toasted partially defatted cooked cottonseed flour--yellow coloring from cottonseed (may cause allergic reactions)
  • Ferrous gluconate (approved only for ripe olives)--yellowish-grey color from iron.
  • Ferrous lactate (approved only for ripe olives)--green color from iron.
  • Grape color extract (approved only for nonbeverage food)--purple color from the fruit
  • Grape skin extract (approved only for still carbonated drinks & ades; beverage bases; alcoholic beverages) )--purple color from the fruit
  • Synthetic iron oxide (approved only for sausage casings)--red-brown-black-yellow color from combining iron with oxygen
  • Fruit juice--various colors from various fruits
  • Vegetable juice--various colors from various vegetables
  • Carrot oil--yellow color from carrots
  • Paprika--orange color from the spice
  • Paprika oleoresin--extracted from the spice using toxic solvents
  • Riboflavin--yellow to orange color from plants
  • Saffron --yellow color from the spice
  • Titanium dioxide--white pigment from the mineral
  • Turmeric--yellow color from the spice
  • Turmeric oleoresin--extracted from the spice using toxic solvents

Using food colors in your kitchen

Most home cooks don't use food colors in everyday cooking. Home cooked food is generally the color it naturally is. Occasionally a home cook will make something like bright yellow saffron rice, which takes its color from the spice.

But home cooks do use food colors for festive occasions, to color frostings for cakes and cookies, or candies.

When you want to color a food, instead of reaching for the artificial colors sold in bottles or as a paste, try a natural color instead.

You can find many natural colors in your kitchen, such as:
Yellow -- add a few threads of saffron
Green -- use spinach juice
Pink -- cherry, raspberry or beet juice
Blue - blueberry juice

These don't keep for any period of time, and need to be made fresh each time, which is not very convenient or reliable.

You can also now purchase plant-based natural food colors that are prepared in concentrations that are easy to use. They can be used to color most foods. While they don't match the same hues as artificial colors, I think they look much better--they are actually the colors found in real foods.

For more information on food colors, see

> Feingold® Association of the United States
Main website for information on how food colors and other artificial additives can affect behavior, learning ability, and other health problems in children, and a proven program for reversing these conditions through elimination of food additives from the diet.

> FDA Food Color Facts
A good summary of the whats, hows, and whys of food colors, from the federal agency that regulates them.

> Summary of Color Additives Listed for Use in the United States in Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics, and Medical Devices
Includes links to relevant sections of the Code of Federal Regulations

> Adverse Effects of Food Colors and Other "Inactive" Ingredients
A chart of health effects compiled by the Feingold® Association

> Ground up Beetles Found in Yogurt -- Carmine Serves as Insect-based Food Coloring Ingredient
An interesting article about the "natural" food coloring carmine

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