Pick Your Poison: Artificial Colors

March is here, spring is near, and on the 17th some of us may imbibe in a green beer . . . or two. We’ve all heard of the health risks and even benefits of alcohol, but it’s the coloring that may be cause for worry this time. Artificial coloring has been a trending topic as of late thanks to new research findings from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a proposed California bill which would require a warning label on foods containing artificial colors.

What does the warning indicate? What about colors besides green? Are natural sources safe and economical? Let’s take a look.

Food dye consumption per person has increased fivefold in the United States since 1955, with 3 dyes – Red 40, Yellow 5, & Yellow 6 – accounting for 90% of the dyes used in foods”i

To understand the prevalence of food coloring usage today, we’ll need to start at the beginning. Food dye and coloring was first used in butter to create the look of summertime butter year round. Summertime butter has a golden hue due to the cow’s heavy beta-carotene diet during the summer months, which is associated with a better flavor. In order to sell more butter year round, yellow coloring was added to winter butter, which was typically white and less flavorful. And so the deception began.

Evolutionarily, rich colors have helped us to locate nutrients as well as let us know which foods to stay away from. Dyes have been added to raw meats, fish, produce, candies, cakes, beverages, and numerous other products. These exaggerated colors have altered the way we see food and impacted our perception of taste.

Interestingly enough, dyes were originally created with natural sources and we are starting to see a shift back to these same sources as consumers’ demand for clean, natural products grows. Brands that have removed or are attempting to remove artificial colors and dyes include: Nestle, Kraft Heinz, Otis Spunkmeyer, General Mills, Campbell, Mars, Mondelez, and Kellogg. Restaurants like Panera Bread and grocery chains such as Whole Foods are also following suit. However, the natural coloring does not always come from an obvious source. For example, strawberry flavored items are being colored with lycopene from tomatoes and orange items can be colored with carrot, pumpkin, and even some spices.

This presents several unique challenges for chemists and food manufacturers. First, how can you use unrelated food-based coloring agents without imparting some of those flavor characteristics onto your product? Second, how do you offset the cost of more expensive coloring agents? Natural colors, unlike their artificial counterparts have shorter shelf lives and are harder to obtain. Both of which make them more expensive. Recently, researchers found that adding amino acids to the flavonoid, anthocyanin – a reddish, purple pigment found in plants – prevents degradation, thereby increasing shelf life. Hopefully this will lead to decreased cost as well. When it comes to getting the flavor and color exactly right, food chemists have tasters and blind tasting panels to ensure the natural coloring has not altered the flavor or trademark color of certain foods.

In the United Kingdom – “As of July 2010 most foods that contain artificial dyes must carry labels warning they may cause hyperactivity in children.” i

About that bill in California; it seems it’s not the first of its kind. In fact, the United Kingdom has been labeling these products for seven years. Several studies have linked artificial colors to hyperactivity in children with existing behavior problems, and recently the FDA acknowledged these findings. The following statement, “exposure to food and food components, including artificial food colors and preservatives, may be associated with adverse behaviors, not necessarily related to hyperactivity, in susceptible children with ADHD and other problem behaviors, and possibly in susceptible children from the general public,” was released by the FDA. Not quite as conclusive as some of the research studies, but perhaps there is cause for concern. Adults, however, have not been included in this disclaimer.

Are there natural options for all the synthetic colors we use? Just about, with the hardest color to achieve being a true blue. For some, the source of natural colors has caused concern in the past. Cochineal (AKA carmine), a natural dye derived from insects is sometimes used as a red dye. This, as you may have suspected, was more concerning to some consumers than the potential effect on behavior. I guess they didn’t like the idea of eating bugs, who knew? Since these natural sources come from plants, there have been reports of allergic reactions to sources such as turmeric and annatto, but the colors have not been directly linked as the culprit. And, just to make matters more difficult, in 2016 some sources of turmeric were recalled due to elevated levels of lead.

Back to the color green, this month we’ll see it sprinkled on cookies in bakeries, filling our pint glasses, and, depending on where you live, turning our rivers an emerald green. Is the coloring harmless fun or something we should be concerned about? We’ll let you decide. I will most likely drink that beer and wear my green. Then again, I’ll probably forget. Luckily adults don’t seem to be that keen on the pinching as kids – maybe it’s the coloring?

i Potera, C. (2011) Diet & Nutrition: The artificial food dye blues. Environmental Health Perspectives, 118(10): A420. Doi:10.1289/ehp.118-a428Cemek, M., Emin, B., Sertkaya, F., Alpdagtas, S., Hazini, A., Onul, A. & Gones, S. (2014). Effects of food color additives on antioxidant functions and bioelement contents of liver, kidney and brain tissues in rats. Journal of Food and Nutrition Research, (10):686-691. Doi:10.12691/jfnr-2-10-6

Chung, C., Rojanasasithat, T., Mutilangi, W. & McClements, D. (2017). Stability improvement of natural food colors: Impact of amino acid and peptide addition on anthocyanin stability in model beverages. Food Chemistry, 218: 277-284. Doi: http:/dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2016.9.087

Plesser, L., Frankena, K., Toorman, J. & Pereira, R. (2017). Diet & ADHD, Reviewing the evidence: A systematic review of meta-analyses of double-blind placebo-controlled trials evaluating the efficacy of diet interventions on the behavior of children with ADHD. PLoS, 12(1). Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0169277

Aungst, J. (n.d.) Evaluation of studies on artificial food colors & behavior disorders in children

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