When it comes to food colorings, there’s a lot of controversy about whether artificial colorings are safe to eat.

For years, the only colorings manufacturers used were chemical ones, but now there is increasing pressure from consumers for companies to move to more natural colorings.

What’s so Bad About Artificial Colors?

Artificial food colorings were originally developed to give food more vibrant colors. People prefer bright colors in food, and much of how appetizing we find something has to do with our vision.

These zingy colorings may well make food look tastier, but could have hidden health dangers. Every year, 15 million pounds of petroleum-based dyes are used in food, and some are known carcinogens. They are approved for food use in the United States, but many other countries have banned these artificial colors.

The top six to look out for and avoid are:

Citrus Red 2: When used in animal studies, this color caused bladder tumors and is banned from human consumption – except for the skin of oranges. You may not think this is a problem as you don’t eat orange skins, but if you use the zest of an orange in your recipes you may be getting more than just fresh citrus taste. Blue #1 (E133) and Blue #2 (E132): These colors are banned in France, Norway and Finland. Studies show that they can cause brain cancer and inhibit nerve cell development. These colors are found in soda drinks, cereal, candy and pet food among others. Red #3 (E127) and Red #40 (E129): Red #3 has been banned in the U.S. since 1990 for topical use, but it is still allowed to be put in food and drinks. Red #40 is thought to cause tumors of the immune system. It is not recommended for children’s products in the UK, and is banned in many European countries. These dyes are found in ice cream, candy, bakery products, cocktails, grenadine and many more. Yellow #5 (E102): Norway and Austria have banned this food additive color, as it contains cancer-causing compounds. Six of eleven studies into Yellow #5 showed that it could cause a deterioration of a cell’s genetic material with the potential to mutate DNA. This color is found in candy, gelatin desserts, pet food and baked goods among others. Yellow #6 (E110): This is banned in Finland and Norway, due to the same cancer causing compounds as Yellow #5. It’s in processed macaroni and cheese, pet food and baked goods.

Natural Dyes

As more consumers demand an alternative to chemical food colorants, food scientists are having to learn to work with natural alternatives. In Europe, more than 90 per cent of all new product launches in the last four years have used natural colors. In North America, the figure is closer to half, and even lower if Canada is not included in the equation.

Synthetic colors are popular with food scientists because they are incredibly stable, water-soluble and the color won’t change whatever temperature it’s at. Natural dyes, on the other hand represent a challenge to work with. Some are water soluble, and some are oil soluble, and scientists have had to come up with different ways to incorporate them in food.  Some of the natural food dyes available are:

Greens and blues: these colors are achieved using chlorophyll and copper chlorophyllin. Blue is difficult to achieve with natural colors, and the only viable option is to use spirulina blue, which is made from spirulina algae. Carotenids: These can range in shades from weak yellow to an orange-red color. Curcumin, which is extracted from turmeric, is used to color many yellow sweets, while orange-red annatto is created from the seeds of the South American achiote tree, Bixa orellana. Carmine: Many food manufacturers are now moving away from carmine as a food coloring. It’s derived from the cochineal beetle, and isn’t vegetarian, kosher or halal. Betanin, which is a red pigment produced from beetroot is rapidly replacing carmine.

Final Thoughts

Brand new foods with natural colors are more likely to be accepted onto the market, but it’s another thing to try and change existing brands. Consumers know and like what they buy, so suddenly changing to natural colors is going to make them unhappy.

Natural pigments mean color changes in brands – sometimes the food color isn’t going to be as bright as the artificial dye. In the U.S., brightly colored foods are the norm, and getting consumers to buy duller, paler but healthier and more natural versions of their favorite foods is going to be an uphill struggle.