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Artificial Colorings Improve the Appearance of Foods

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Updated June 08, 2014

Most processed foods would have a bland appearance if it weren't for the food colorings that are added during the manufacturing process.

Imagine beige cheese poofs instead of neon-bright orange ones.

Some colorings come from extracts of plants and other natural substances, but many colors are artificially created in laboratories and then added to foods to enhance their appeal -- especially to children, who love bright hues.

Artificial colorings are also called certified colors because they need to be approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These man-made coloring agents are cheaper and more effective for adding color compared to their natural counterparts that are derived from fruits, vegetables and minerals.

There are two types of certified color additives called dyes or lakes.

Dyes dissolve in water and are usually used as powders, granules, or liquids. They're commonly used in beverages, baked goods, confections and dairy products.

Lakes do not dissolve in water, and are more stable than dyes, so they are used for coloring food products contain fats and oils, or in products that contain no moisture at all, such as cake mixes, hard candies and chewing gum.

You'll find these certified color additives when you look on food labels:

  • FD&C Blue Nos. 1 and 2
  • FD&C Green No. 3
  • FD&C Red Nos. 3 and 40
  • FD&C Yellow Nos. 5 and 6
  • Orange B
  • Citrus Red No. 2

The FDA considers several factors before allowing artificial colors to be certified, such as the composition of the substance; the amount that would be normally used in a product; the amount usually consumed; and any healthy effects and safety factors.

The artificial colors that make it into the foods you eat should be safe. However, research has connected the use of artificial colors and behavioral problems in children up to the teenage years. Certain red dyes were found to cause cancer in lab rats and were subsequently banned. Artificial colors must be listed in the ingredients list on the Nutrition Facts label, but since they're considered safe, no other warning or additional labeling is required.

You're probably used to seeing processed foods with vivid colorings, and it's understandable that you might want to stay away from artificial colorings and other food chemicals. Avoiding artificial coloring agents doesn't mean you have to eat dull-looking food.

Colors such as annatto extract (yellow), dehydrated beets (bluish-red to brown), caramel (yellow to tan), beta-carotene (yellow to orange) and grape skin extract (red, green) all add color without adding artificial chemicals. These tend to be more expensive than the artificial colorings so they're not typically used to color cheaply processed foods. Or you can skip the heavily processed foods altogether and stick to whole foods such as fruits and vegetables that are naturally colorful and better for your health, as well.

Sources:

Food Ingredients and Colors. United States Food and Drug Administration. Accessed July 31, 2009. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodIngredientsPackaging/ucm094211.htm#types

McCann D, Barrett A, Cooper A, Crumpler D, Dalen L, Grimshaw K, Kitchin E, Lok K, Porteous L, Prince E, Sonuga-Barke E, Warner JO, Stevenson J. "Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial." Lancet. 2007 Nov 3;370(9598):1560-7.

Schab DW, Trinh NH. "Do artificial food colors promote hyperactivity in children with hyperactive syndromes? A meta-analysis of double-blind placebo-controlled trials." J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2004 Dec;25(6):423-34.

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