September 26, 2017
Food Coloring Goes Natural

Food Coloring Goes Natural

by Berkeley Wellness  |  

If you’re an avid label reader, you might be noticing more “natural” colors listed in the ingredients of packaged foods and beverages these days, such as beetroot powder, saffron, grape seed extract, lycopene (as from tomatoes), and carrot oil—and not just in “natural” products. Mainstream food companies are turning to them too.

For instance, Kraft Foods has announced plans to replace the day-glo artificial dyes in some of its Macaroni & Cheese products with paprika, turmeric, and other natural yellow-orange colors.

And in 2013, in response to a petition from Mars, Inc., the FDA gave a green light to the use of spirulina extract (from blue-green algae) as a colorant in candy and chewing gum. In April 2014 the approval was expanded to all foods, from ice cream and yogurt to breakfast cereals and beverages.

According to the Institute of Food Technologists, natural colors outsold artificial ones globally in 2011 for the first time ever.

Artificial scares?

One reason for the increasing popularity of natural colors is the perception that artificial ones are harmful. Fears skyrocketed when a widely publicized British study in the Lancet in 2007 linked a mix of six artificial colors (combined with the preservative sodium benzoate) to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.

Though the study, which was funded by the Food Standards Agency (similar to our FDA), could not single out which additive(s) might be to blame, the findings prompted the European Union to require warning labels on foods containing any of these artificial colors. The British government encouraged manufacturers to remove them altogether—which is why British versions of some American products (including Skittles and Nutri-Grain bars) now have beetroot powder, paprika, and annatto, for example, instead of Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6.

In contrast, an FDA advisory committee voted against a similar warning label in 2011, saying there was insufficient evidence that artificial colors cause hyperactivity, but also recommending further research.

Some bugs with natural dyes

Natural colors, derived from animal, vegetable, or mineral sources, have an excellent safety record. Some, such as carotenoids and anthocyanins, have antioxidant effects. But natural colors, such as the following, can also be problematic:

  • Cochineal extract (or carmine)—used in many fruit drinks, candies, ice creams, yogurts, and other products that have a red, pink, or purple hue—has been linked to rare but severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis (a life-threatening whole-body reaction). Derived from crushed cochineal beetles, the coloring is also a concern for vegetarians and people who follow certain religious dietary laws. The FDA now requires that food manufacturers list the dye by name in the ingredients, though the labels still do not have to specify its insect origin.
  • Annato, a yellow-orange coloring made from the seeds of achiote trees native to Latin and South America, can also cause allergic reactions in some people.
  • The processing of certain types of “naturally derived” caramel color—used in some colas and other products—creates a compound called 4-MEI. At very high levels, 4-MEI increases cancer in mice and is classified by the World Health Organization as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The FDA maintains that there is no immediate or short-term risk from the amounts of 4-MEI typically ingested, but is further reviewing the data to see if limits should be set. In the meantime, California considers 4-MEI a carcinogen and requires a warning label on caramel-colored products that contain it, which has prompted Coca-Cola and Pepsi to reformulate their caramel colors.
  • Natural colors can also be problematic for food companies because they tend to be more costly and less stable, and they may not provide the eye-popping colors that people have come to expect from certain foods.

Bottom line: For the vast majority of people, food colors—whether natural or artificial—do not pose a health risk in the amounts typically consumed. The main problem is that foods containing them tend to be heavily processed, high in fat, sugar, and sodium, and not very nutritious.

Don’t assume that replacing artificial colors with natural ones makes the food a healthy choice either—candy is still candy. If you eat mostly whole foods (like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) and limit processed foods (especially crazy colorful ones), you’ll consume few color additives anyway.