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!










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