Color additives have long been part of our food supply to add visual appeal, especially to children. Conversely, with today’s desire for less adulterated foods, some question the need for and safety of color additives.
Color additives, including food dyes and pigments, are substances derived from both synthetic and plant, animal or mineral sources that add color to food. The objective is to enhance natural colors, add color to otherwise colorless foods, compensate for natural color variations and help identify flavors (such as yellow for lemon).
Functions, Names and Labeling
Synthetic color additives were developed to maintain hue and depth of color regardless of pH, temperature or presence of other ingredients. Synthetic colors are classified as “certifiable colors,” as they require U.S. Food and Drug Administration testing and certification each time a new color batch is used. Certifiable color additives are man-made and derived primarily from petroleum.
The nine FDA-approved “certifiable colors” include:
FD&C (FDA approved for Food, Drugs & Cosmetics) Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Green No. 3, Red No. 3, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6; Orange B (only for use in hot dog and sausage casings) and Citrus Red No. 2 (only for use to color orange peels).
Other color additives derived from sources such as fruits, vegetables, insects and minerals are “exempt” from batch testing and certification, but they still must adhere to safety standards and regulatory requirements. Examples include grape skin extract, saffron, and fruit and vegetable juices. Some people may call these color additives “natural.” However, the term “natural” is not regulated or defined by the FDA, and the FDA objects to the term’s use in products containing added color, whether from certifiable or plant- or mineral-derived colorants.
Certifiable colors must be declared on food labels by the name of the additive, with at least the color and number (such as “Blue 2”). Other color additives may be declared as “Artificial Color,” “Artificial Color Added” or “Color Added,” or by an equally informative term such as “Colored with Fruit Juice” or “Vegetable Juice Color.” Carmine and cochineal extract color additives must be declared on labels because some people are allergic to these substances.
The ability to replace synthetic with plant- or mineral-derived colorant compounds depends on and varies with the pH and temperature of the food or beverage. Certifiable colorants may be preferable when the color needs to be vibrant, stable for long periods of time or when a specific color cannot be achieved with plant- or mineral-derived options.
The FDA oversees all color additives, which must be approved for use in food, dietary supplements, drugs and cosmetics, and includes ongoing review of scientific evidence on the safety of their use. In addition, the FDA sets specifications and limitations for types of foods to which each color additive may be added, maximum amounts allowed in foods and how they must be identified on labels.
Color additives are regulated a little differently than other additives. “Because of the potential to deceive consumers about quality or safety of food, color additives require proof of safety during the authorization procedure and cannot be registered as ‘generally recognized as safe,’ exempt from FDA approval,” says Kantha Shelke, PhD, CFS, principal at Corvus Blue, LLC, and adjunct faculty in food safety regulations at Johns Hopkins University.
Despite additional layers of oversight, some consumers are concerned about the safety of food dyes. The FDA asserts color additives are thoroughly evaluated prior to approval and safe when used in accordance with regulations. However, over the years, many colors — including yellows 1, 2, 3 and 4 — have been banned due to adverse health effects. Color additives that have been found to cause cancer in animals or humans may not be used in FDA-regulated products marketed in the U.S.
Scientists have examined the relationship between food coloring and hyperactive behavior in children with mixed results.
“The FDA has reviewed and will continue to examine the effects of food dyes on children’s behavior,” says Andrew Zajac, PhD, director of the Division of Petition Review in FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety. “The totality of scientific evidence indicates that most children have no adverse effects when consuming color additives, but some evidence suggests that certain children may be sensitive to them.”
Adverse reactions to color additives are estimated to be quite rare overall, even among people with allergies. Research is limited in this area, and there is no scientific evidence to support a link between exposure to artificial coloring and allergies.
That said, some experts think color additives are completely unnecessary. “It’s better to color food with colorants from food sources or add no color at all than to use synthetic color additives without the benefit of long-term safety studies,” says Virginia Tech food science professor Sean F. O’Keefe, PhD.
Whether in response to mounting evidence or ongoing consumer concern, many companies around the world have begun eliminating food dyes from some or all of their products. The British government now requires warning labels on most foods containing color additives, which has led to the reformulation of many products.
There is a growing trend to replace synthetic colors with plant- or mineral-derived compounds. These are assumed to be safer, but without regulation of the term “natural” and without being batch tested or certified, plant- and mineral-derived color additives are not a panacea.
“It is essential that all colorants be tested with the same rigor, something not always done with ingredients such as fruit extracts that bestow a false sense of safety because they are derived from familiar plants and foods,” Shelke says.
Color additives, which confer no health or nutritional benefit, are unlikely to be dangerous for most people. For those wishing to avoid color additives, helpful strategies include reading food labels and eating more foods that are minimally processed.