Monthly Archives: May 2014

Week 22: Artificial Food Color

Why is some cheddar cheese orange when it is made from white milk?

English farmers first began dyeing cheeses in the 16th century (originally using marigold petals or carrot juice) because the dye made low-fat cheese look more like high-fat cheese, which commanded higher prices. When U.S. commercial cheese production took off in the second half of the 19th century, dyeing with annatto, a yellow orange vegetable dye which is made from the seeds of the achiote tree, to achieve consistency in cheese color. Cheese made from spring and summer milk tended to be naturally yellower than cheese made from fall and winter milk, since grass is more abundant and nutritious in spring and summer. Today, many supermarket cheddars are still colored to satisfy consumer’s expectations of what cheese should look like – but they are colored with artificial food colors. And cheese is not the only product which contains Artificial Food Color (AFC).

We are exposed to artificial food colors on a daily basis from food products that include beverages, cheese, cereal, pickles, pudding, popsicles and nearly all processed foods in addition to nonfood items like toothpaste, shampoo, laundry soap and cosmetics.

For centuries, people and companies used dyes derived from natural ingredients to color food. But many of these natural colors contained toxins such as mercury, copper and arsenic.

  • Red lead (Pb3O4) and vermillion (HgS) were routinely used to color cheese and confectionery.
  • Copper arsenate (Cu3(AsO4)2) was used to recolor used tea leaves for resale. It also caused two deaths when used to color a dessert in 1860.

Around the turn of the 20th century, scientists began creating synthetic colors, derived from coal tar (a petroleum product) to replace the natural ones that were toxic. In 1856, mauveine, the first synthetic color,  was developed by Sir William Henry Perkin.

In 1906, the Pure Food and Drugs Act (a.k.a. the “Wiley Act”) instituted the first restrictions on color additives in the United States. In general terms, the law banned artificial colors that proved “injurious to health,” and the government hired chemist Dr. Bernard Hesse to investigate which of the existing 80 dyes being used in foods were safe enough to keep legal. The next three decades saw a process of eliminating colors that caused recurrent adverse health effects in the public. By 1938, only 15 synthetic colors were still legal, and those were subsequently divided into three categories: those suitable for foods, drugs, and cosmetics; those suitable only for drugs and cosmetics; and those suitable only for cosmetics.

Today only seven colors remain on the FDA’s approved list.

  • Blue No. 1 – Blue
  • Blue No. 2 – Indigo
  • Green No. 3 – Turquoise
  • Red No. 3 – Pink
  • Red No. 40 – Red
  • Yellow No. 5 – Yellow
  • Yellow No. 6 – Orange

The most commonly used AFC is Red #40 (82 foods and candies), with Yellow #5 (69 foods/candies) and Yellow #6 (62 foods/candies) next.

food colors

In a recent study published in Clinical Pediatrics, Purdue University researchers found the products with the greatest amount of AFCs were Cap’n Crunch’s Oops All Berries (the No. 1 worst cereal, with 41 mg of AFCs and 15 g of sugar per serving), Fruity Pebbles, Trix and Fruity Cheerios. Among candies, those highest in AFCs included M&Ms, Reese’s Pieces, Strawberry Twizzlers and Skittles. Also ranking high were candy corn, jelly beans and Peeps.

The authors quote several behavioral studies that have shown that AFCs “caused significant hyperactivity-type changes in children both with and without ADHD.” A study in 2007 at the University of Southampton, six dyes that came to be known as the “Southampton Six“ were linked to hyperactivity in children, and now require warning labels in the E.U. The FDA, however, is not so convinced that such measures are necessary. FDA scientists have theorized that bad reactions to artificial colorings in certain individuals may be like a food allergy, affecting only a small number of people rather than the entire public.

The Grocers Manufacturing Association which represents Coca Cola, Nestle and General Mills and is not in favor of labeling. The companies rely on coal tar colors for visually-appealing products and the cost of finding replacement ingredients, changing recipes, and possibly losing sales could put them out of business.

A recent petition by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, has called for a ban on the use of artificial dyes in food.  The group has targeted its petition at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, seeking the phasing out of artificial food dyes linked to serious health risks.

More and more companies are voluntarily making changes as the desire for natural products increases. The cheese industry is making a shift toward using annatto color to replace Yellow #5. Naturally colored and flavored alternatives to gummies, lollipops, cereals, yogurts and gum are now readily available. Look for the label that states:  “Contains no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.”

Cooking at home?  The best way to avoid artificial food coloring is to fill your plate with fresh fruits and vegetables. To enhance the foods you prepare, you can use the juices from the following foods to add color to your culinary creations:

  • Green: spinach juice
  • Orange: pumpkin or carrot juice
  • Pink: raspberries or beetroot
  • Blue: blueberries
  • Purple: red cabbage or grapes
  • Yellow: yellow carrots, turmeric powder, saffron flowers

Using natural food colors will produce more of a pastel color than the commercially produced dyes so you may need to experiment if you seeking a very specific end result. However, the taste will be better, you won’t experience allergic reactions or side effects and your body will thank you!





Linguine with Fiddleheads, Tomatoes and Pesto


1 pound fiddlehead ferns

1 pound linguine pasta

4 oz. prepared pesto

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 c. grape tomatoes, sliced in half

1 c. yellow cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

2 scallions, thinly sliced

1/4 t. cayenne pepper

Fresh parmesan cheese, grated



In a large pot of boiling salted water, blanch the fiddleheads until they are crisp-tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the fiddleheads from the water and shock them in a bowl of ice water (unless you are going to use them immediately).

Drop linguine into the same pot of boiling water used for fiddleheads. Boil for 3 to 5 minutes or until al dente.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Saute fiddlehead ferns, green onions, and tomatoes for 2 minutes. Add pasta and pesto to skillet. Season with cayenne pepper and salt to taste. Stir gently to heat through and to coat pasta with sauce.  Garnish with parmesan cheese.  Serves 4.



Week 21: Fiddleheads



It is finally spring on the New Hampshire Seacoast!  The snow has melted.  Crocuses, hyacinths and daffodils are blooming. And the local farmers markets will begin soon – with an abundant selection of organic meats and cheeses, farm fresh eggs, breads, and early produce – lettuce, spinach, peas and fiddleheads.


“What is a fiddlehead?”   Fiddleheads are the furled fronds of an ostrich fern. They get their name from their resemblance to the head of a fiddle or violin. Fiddleheads are harvested early in the season before the frond has opened and reached its full height. Bright green specimens are best with only an inch or two of the stem.

A number of fiddlehead festivals are held in New England to celebrate the arrival of spring. Maine celebrated its 3rd Annual Fiddlehead Festival in early may and Vermont is celebrating their First Annual Fiddlehead Festival at Mount Snow Valley this weekend,  May  23-26,  with music, cooking classes and contests, children’s games and fiddling contests. Vintners, artists, distillers, publishers, cheese makers, weavers, potters, jewelers, chefs, photographers, farmers, and artisan chocolatiers will be showcasing their products.  For more information, visit

Culinary Uses

Fiddleheads taste somewhat like asparagus or young spinach, freeze well and are easy to prepare. Do not eat fiddleheads raw as they can be the source of food-borne illnesses.  Rinse in cold water, steam or sauté with butter. They can be added to salads, omelets or grains.

Health Benefits

Fiddleheads have antioxidant activity, are a source of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, and are high in iron and fiber. Certain varieties of fiddleheads have been shown to be carcinogenic.