Food Colorings: What are they, why are they used, and are they safe?

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We love brightly-colored foods, but what is the difference between the color in a bright red apple or the deep red frosting on a cupcake?

Have you ever wondered how food manufacturers add colors to food such as yellow margarine, green mint-flavored ice cream, or blue yogurt?

The FDA has a long list of approved color additives:

  • FD&C Blue No. 1 and No. 2
  • FD&C Green No. 3
  • FD&C Red No. 3 and No. 40
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5 (also known as tartrazine) and No. 6
  • Orange B
  • Citrus Red No. 2
  • Annatto extract
  • Beta-carotene
  • Grape skin extract
  • Cochineal extract or carmine
  • Paprika oleoresin
  • Caramel color
  • Fruit and vegetable juices
  • Saffron

A color additive is any dye, pigment, or substance that adds color to foods. Color additives are used to offset discoloring when food is exposed to light, air, or temperature extremes; correct natural color variations, enhance naturally-occurring colors, and add color to foods that are naturally white or colorless. Color additives have no health or nutritional benefits. Some color additives are made from plant extracts, while others are made synthetically in the factory. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating all food color additives for health, safety, and accurate labeling.

Are Color Additives Safe?

More than 40 years ago, Benjamin Feingold, Chief of Allergy at Kaiser-Permanente Hospital in California, was one of the first to state that synthetic color additives, artificial flavors, preservatives, and salicylates found in foods could cause hyperactivity. His opinion was based on years of observing patients, rather than controlled studies, and generated controversy that continues today.

In 1955, 1.6 million pounds of colorings, or 12 mg per person per day, were certified for use in foods. By 2015 that figure jumped to over 17 million pounds, or 67 mg per person per day. The more than five-fold increase reflects the growing number of soft drinks, breakfast cereals, candies, baked goods, snacks, desserts, and other foods and drinks made with color additives.

The FDA has the primary legal responsibility for determining the safety of color additives and considers both the amount that’s typically consumed as well as immediate and long-term health effects. When determining an appropriate amount of color additives to use, the FDA includes a built-in safety margin so that the levels of use that are approved are much lower than what would be expected to have any adverse effect.

Growing Safety Concerns

When my oldest son was in kindergarten, he started to develop an eczema-like rash on his hands, face, and body that neither our family physician or the local dermatologist could figure out how to treat. At Easter that year, after he and the other neighborhood children ate the brightly-colored candy they collected at the Easter egg hunt, I was amazed as, within minutes, a bright-red rash started covering his entire body. We had found our culprit for the itchy, irritated skin – color additives.

There’s a growing concern among parents about the possible negative effects of synthetic color additives on our children. Research conducted in one grocery store in North Carolina in 2014 collected information on 810 food products. Overall, 350 food products (43.2%) contained color additives. The most common color additives were Red 40 (29.8% of products), Blue 1 (24.2%), Yellow 5 (20.5%), and Yellow 6 (19.5%). Fruits and vegetables were the only foods that did not contain color additives. The highest percentage of products with color additives were candies (96.3%), fruit-flavored snacks (94%), and drink mixes/powders (89.7%).

There is research on both sides of the color additive safety debate, with some research showing that even people who consume a high number of foods with color additives are not at risk of any adverse health effects. Other research points to the possibility that color additives may be carcinogenic or could cause hypersensitivity reactions (like my son’s itchy red rash) or behavior problems. A 2012 meta-analysis of 36 studies found that 8% of children with ADHD had improved behavior when they ate a diet that contained no color additives. FD&C Yellow No. 5 is used to color beverages, dessert powders, candy, ice cream, custards, and other foods. The FDA's Committee on Hypersensitivity to Food Constituents concluded in 1986 that FD&C Yellow No. 5 might cause hives in fewer than one out of 10,000 people, and that there was no evidence the color additives in food provoke asthma attacks. The law now requires Yellow No. 5 to be identified on the ingredient line so that people who may be sensitive to the color can avoid it.

Our Take:

Since primarily processed foods contain color additives, you can remove these foods from your daily food choices and replace them with less processed, naturally-colored foods. Color additives add no nutrition or health value to foods, and primarily are found in foods that are high in sugar, sodium, and calories, which can be detrimental to health. Instead of consuming brightly-colored processed foods, opt for plain yogurt and flavor it with fresh or frozen fruit. You can also serve fresh fruit instead of fruit-flavored snacks or candy, and enjoy water instead of flavored beverages.

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT, CHWC


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