Wednesday, November 12, 2008


By Pete Maletto

Jan 25, 2007 - It was not long ago when I was conducting my daily ritual of research on the Internet and stumbled upon consumers growing concerns about artificial food colors. While it didn't surprise me because I have the same concerns, I noticed that many consumers are complaining about side effects with artificial colors. Most consumers are concerned about yellow dye consumption and its side effects such as headaches, vomiting, hives, asthma and a possible cause of ADD and ADHD.
While I found that yellow dye has quite a laundry list of possible side effects, I also found that red dye has its share as well. One that really amuses me is that this artificial food color can actually dye our own internal systems red color (they do this with salmon to make the pink color).

While side effects are not as documented as it should be, there also seems to be some people that have allergic reactions to most artificial colors. Just ask any doctor that performs colonoscopies and you'll hear him tell you about artificial blue color and red color showing up and coloring the colon for days. This has lead many consumers to believe that artificial colors are bad for you and that they are another cancer causing agent found in foods today. Now the media is piling on and consumers are starting to avoid artificial food colors.

And as an experienced food technologist, I tend to agree.....

The FDA manages the Adverse Reaction Monitoring System (ARMS) as an added safety check on color additives to food, with a computerized database to track potential public health hazards. FDA's Advisory Committee on hypersensitivity to food constituents concluded in 1986 that FD&C Yellow No. 5 may cause hives in fewer than one out of 10,000 people, but found no evidence that it provokes asthma attacks as some reports had indicated. You would think a system as sophisticated as this would catch the problems but they decided to permit the usage of Yellow No. 5 to continue, with product labeling allowing those with hypersensitivity to avoid it.

Yellow dye is basically a hidden term for tartrazine, a coal tar derivative which has proven side effects on the central nervous system. For example, in a study published in 1978, 122 patients who had a variety of diagnosed allergic reactions were given 50 milligrams of tartrazine.

This Is Your Kid On Artificial Colors!This dose elicited reactions such as palpitations, weakness, hives and itching in these susceptible individuals; 50 milligrams is a large dose, but could be consumed by someone drinking a few bottles of soda during the day. Or a serving of Mac and Cheese to your kids (get the hyperactive hint here?) which has close to 50 mg per box and at a child's body weight, that's a lot of tartrazine. It is also important to note that there is a connection between people allergic to aspirin and allergic reactions to tartrazine.
Usage of Red No. 3 was voluntarily terminated in 1990 after animal testing indicated an association with thyroid tumors. Although it still remains on the list, the FDA is proposing to remove it. A panel from the National Institutes of Health determined in 1982 that coloring additives were not related to claims of hyperactivity (look at the kids today and it makes you think twice). Although approved by the FDA, some people may still have allergic reactions.

Currently, any blue or green food on the U.S. market gets its hues from certifiable colors FD&C Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue), Blue No. 2 (Indigotine), or Green No. 3 (Fast Green). Blue No. 1 and Green No. 3 are both petroleum-derived triphenylmethanes--that is, they have three aromatic rings attached to a central carbon atom. Blue No. 2 is a disodium sulfonate of a naturally occurring compound called indigo.

However, the indigo used to create Blue No. 2 is synthesized by fusing N-phenylglycine in a molten mix of sodamide and sodium and potassium hydroxides. And we are feeding these chemicals to our kids!

Lets face it, there is no way you could tell me that something that can stain the cells of our body and come from chemicals such as coal tar/tartrazine, triphenylmethane, and other chemicals would not cause some type of mutagenic effect in the body over a period of time.

None the less, it's seems obvious to me that consuming artificial colors can definitely cause side effects with some people (some side effects that they may not even notice) and they are quite possibly "cancer causing chemicals" that we do not need in our food supply, especially when healthy alternatives exist.


As the negative press about side effects with artificial colors continue worldwide, natural colors are moving in to take center stage. As the shift toward healthy lifestyles drives consumer markets, the demand for natural food colors has experienced significant growth, and analysts forecast it will continue to increase.

Retailers are now looking at cleaning up their labels as a response to the demand for natural products continues to climb. As consumers become more skeptical of mass production techniques and food safety issues, they are migrating to natural foods. Seeking optimal nutrition, the number of U.S. natural food and drink consumers will increase from to 113 million by the end of 2007, according to Datamonitor researchers.

Colors are one of the most important factors when designing a food or beverage. Consumers use color as a way to identify foods and beverages and even judge the quality of the product. People associate certain colors with certain flavors. Because of this, the color of food can influence the perceived flavor. So when I design any food or beverage product I always look to benefit the manufacturer (my client) and the consumer by using natural colors, and I can always get the impact of a bright, colorful artificial color. But using natural colors is a challenge all to its own. As ridiculous as this sounds, the laws for natural colors are more strict than artificial colors. For example, we can't use chlorophyll to make a natural green know the natural chemical that keeps plants alive (yet it's OK to use coal tar).

Natural colors have their own set of regulations and while the FDA lists them as "exempt from certification" they have a set of restrictions that us food designers must follow. These natural ingredients must have GRAS status, which is generally recognized as safe by the US government.

And unlike artificial colors, natural colors are more difficult to use because they are subject to change pigment with product PH, heat or light. It takes a food technologist experienced in natural colors to understand how they react in a particular process, product or package.

Some natural colors are heat and/or light sensitive. For example, beet juice is destroyed by heat and Turmeric, on the other hand, is heat-stable and gives a bright yellow color, but breaks down in a few days under UV light. To protect a beverage's natural color, sometimes I recommend soft drink manufacturers use tinted bottles or UV protective overwraps.

Using natural colors can provide a two-fold advantage when designing foods. One of those is not using artificial colors and the second advantage is that many natural colors are actually good for you and they provide a antioxidant/anticancer and antimicrobial benefit. One of those many colors/antioxidants that produces a yellow color is turmeric, annatto, and beta carotene.

Turmeric is a bright yellow colorant made from the roots of the herb Curcuma longa L. The pigments responsible for the color are known as curcuminoid: curcumin and related compounds. Turmeric's solubility depends on the medium in which the pigments are dispersed and the process. For instance, turmeric oleoresin is water-soluble; but a suspension of turmeric extract in oil can be added to fat-based systems. At high pH this colorant turns orange. Turmeric also has been shown in scientific studies to act as an antioxidant, with anticancer and antimutagenic properties.

Annatto is another yellow food colorant. It comes from the seeds of the Bixa orella tree. The pigments that produce the yellow to orange color range are the carotenoids bixin and norbixin; the concentration is expressed as a percentage of one or both of these compounds and the content varies with the extraction method. The pH, emulsifiers and the overall solubility affect the hue; the greater the solubility in oil, the brighter the color. Water- and oil-soluble, and oil/water dispersible forms of annatto are available. Because it may precipitate or turn pink at a pH less than 5, suppliers have developed specially emulsified acid proof versions.

Beta-Carotene is a precursor for vitamin A in addition to imparting an orange-yellow color to food. Most beta-carotene is derived from algae or synthesized. Beta carotene is oil-soluble but can be made into a water-dispersible emulsion. No restrictions have been placed on the level of use and it is listed as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe). As an antioxidant, beta carotene is critical to optimal immune system support.

These natural yellow colors are a great alternative to artificial yellow dyes that are poisoning our food supply today. Other functional colors are anthocyanins, which can produce reds instead of using artificial red #40 color.

These anthocyanins are natural pigments found in grapes, elderberries, black currants, red cabbage and other fruits and vegetables and they add a unique, natural shade of red to many products. Anthocyanins are most vibrant and stable in low-pH foods like beverages and fruit jellies and jams, but they do become unstable as pH increases or due to pasteurization. Anthocyanins act as antioxidants and may help prevent coronary heart disease and strokes. Studies show they may have anti-inflammatory properties and have antiviral and antimicrobial activity as well.
When looking for a bright pink color I turn to the anthocyanins in Red Cabbage Juice for products with a pH of less than 4. A higher pH causes the anthocyan-based pigments to turn a purplish blue color. The product dissolves in water, but not in oil.

Beet Juice in either liquid or dehydrated form contributes a bluish-red color produced by a compound known as betanin which is stable at a higher pH range than red cabbage juice.

For a more reddish purple color I use Grape Skin Extract, but in beverages only. The FDA restricts its use to alcoholic beverages, beverage bases, still and carbonated drinks, and "ades". Go figure huh?

Carmine/Cochineal. Carminic acid, which is derived from the shells of certain species of insect, produces a magenta red shade and is the pigment present in carmine colors and cochineal extract. Water insoluble lake forms of carmine exhibit a color range from pink to purple. Unlike the colors derived from plant sources, these are not Kosher certified. Carmine will not be stable at low pH unless an acid-proof version is used. It is, however, very heat stable.

While I try to stay away from Carmine because the whole insect thing makes me uncomfortable, I found that tomato extracts featuring lycopene can produce the red pigment I desire in foods and beverages. One such product is Tomat-O-Red from PLThomas. Tomat-O-Red is ideal as a colorant because it offers an all natural alternative to coloring with carmine/cochineal. Unlike many natural colors it is stable in a wide range of temperatures, and there is no color shift with pH changes. It has the added benefit of containing lycopene, a healthy colorant.

Another great natural coloring agent is caramel colors. Caramel color is one of the most widely used colorants used in foods and is made by heating food grade carbohydrates, generally a high dextrose-containing starch hydrolysate or corn syrup.
Caramel color is soluble in water and produces a color ranging from golden brown to nearly black. The color strength is defined as its tinctorial power -- the absorbance at 560 nanometers measured spectrophotometrically. The color tone, defined by the hue index, measures the red characteristics of the color. Generally, the higher the tinctorial power, or strength, the lower the hue index, or red tones. Some caramel colors are termed "double strength." This is a relative term and varies with the color range. The specific gravity indicates the solids content and therefore the strength of the color.

The majority of caramel color carries either a positive or negative ionic charge. Negatively charged product uses sulfite in its manufacture and although it is molecularly bound, can be detected chemically. Because the FDA mandates sulfite labeling in products containing over 10 ppm, the level present in a specific type of caramel color may become a formulation consideration.

For orange color I usually turn to another spice, Paprika. Paprika Oleoresin is extracted from the pod of Capsicum annum, or paprika. It contains three main naturally occurring pigments: capsanthin, capsorubin and beta-carotene. This combination produces a bright orange to red orange in food products. The oleoresin is oil-soluble, but when emulsified becomes water dispersible.

Other times I look to modify a natural color or make the product white I usually use titanium dioxide because it not only colors food products white, it imparts an opaque appearance. Both water and oil dispersible versions are manufactured. The FDA limits its usage in food products to 1% by weight.

So as you can see there is not only an advantage in using natural colors over artificial ones, but it an art form that utilizes the creativity of the food designer to get the appropriate color. In fact, many times I will use 3 or 4 natural colors to get the desired shade.

The most important aspect is the concern for the consumer and using natural colors provides a clear health benefit for them. While the media continues to push the all natural button, you'll see consumers influenced and looking to the Internet for answers, which will expose artificial colors for what they really are.

If you have artificial colors in your foods give us a call and we can make the necessary changes in your product line and provide the market advantage your consumers are looking for.