How Artificial Colors Got Into Your Food

January 11, 2017

We expect our food to look a certain way, and color is part of that equation. Find out about natural and artificial colors here.

Because colors do not involve specific tastes, as do flavorings, there are great differences between the chemical structures of artificial and natural colorings. Artificial colorings have anecdotally and scientifically been linked with allergies, behavioral and hyperactivity issues in kids, among other things.

So how did artificial colors get into our food? Here is a bit of history:
Most of the artificial colorings used today are based on petrochemical coal-tar dyes first developed in 1900. There were no regulations on food colors and any of over 80 dyes could be used to color everything from cloth to candy! In 1906, the first laws were passed for seven colors, composed of known ingredients, which showed no harmful effects. Over the years, new colors were added and some were de-listed.

So why are natural and artificial colorings added to foods?
The color of your food can substantially add to how you perceive the taste; brighter colors can also make a food look fresher and more appealing, therefore increasing sales. It is unfortunate that as consumers we are conditioned to expect certain foods to be a certain color and will reject those that do not fall into our perceived norms - to most people it just wouldn’t seem right if macaroni and cheese wasn’t bright orange. This expectation and recognition of the color of foods can also be seen as a defense or survival mechanism, it is generally understood that when mushrooms are brightly colored they are probably poisonous to eat.

Companies are working hard to switch to all natural – but the challenge lies in identifying a variety of natural colors, and successfully integrating them into foods. Naturally derived colorants can have varying temperature sensitivities, among other attributes, affecting a product’s appearance, flavor, calories, taste and stability.

Reading labels is your best bet for avoiding unwanted colors or flavors in your foods – look for products with naturally added color derived from fruits and vegetables. Ingredients to avoid on food labels include, “artificial color” and “FD&C [color] No. [number].” Another solution is to buy more whole unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables and use spices to add flavor; by doing so you will not only limit your exposure to food colorings but other unnecessary cooking and processing additives as well.