Trying to eliminate food coloring from your diet? It make take a while to avoid them completely, but many health professionals believe that you are much better off without those dyes. Food coloring and artificial color additives are common in many foods, but there has been a shift in awareness. More and more consumers are becoming concerned about food quality and raising questions about whether added coloring is safe. Some experts claim that consumption of food dyes has significantly increased since 1955, from 3 million to 15 million pounds per year.
The Food and Drug Administration in the United States (FDA) has already revoked approval of 91 dyes that were once widely used in food and beverages. There are actually only seven synthetic colors remaining that are allowed by the federal agency — Blue #1, Blue #2, Green #3, Red #3, Red #40, Yellow #5, and Yellow #6.
Red #40, Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 account for approximately 90 percent of the food dyes used in the United States today.
Red No. 40 is often found in cereal, gelatin, candy, and baked goods like cupcakes.
Yellow No. 5 is often found in soft drinks, pudding, chips, pickles, and mixed honey.
Yellow No. 6 is often found in orange soda and other beverages like hot chocolate mix.
You’d be surprised to know where artificial colors can show up, including some of the foods you thought were healthy and good for you. Look closely on the label. You’ll find artificial colorings in many brands of yogurt and whole wheat breads and pizza crusts.
Wild salmon is naturally pink, but farmed salmon flesh is naturally beige. To make their fish look more appetizing, salmon farmers add dyes to their feed to change the fish’s color from the inside. Because of this, some supermarkets put “color added” labels on the packaging of farmed salmon. If this is surprising to you, ask yourself if you would buy salmon that was beige and not pink. You probably wouldn’t. And that is why so much of our food contains these dyes and artificial colors.
What is Food Coloring?
In the natural world, colors of foods have an important role in how human beings and other animals identify foods. Humans, and some related species, have trichromatic (red, green and blue) color vision. Light is focused by the lens of the eye onto a layer of rod and cone cells. These cells of the retina contain visual pigments called opsins. There are three types of opsins in each rod cell and they are each sensitive to a different range of wavelengths of light, usually red, green and blue. For most human beings, any color can be reproduced by mixing together just three fixed wavelengths of light at certain intensities.
It’s easy to imagine early mankind using color to identify when certain foods were ripe. Eating foods that were not yet ripe could cause stomach problems. Not being able to identify poisonous foods such as certain mushrooms or plants could have deadly results. Thus, the ability to distinguish colors among foods has been around us for a long time as a matter of survival.
Artificial colors are something more recently added to foods. Food coloring today includes any dye, pigment, or chemical substance that imparts a color when it is added to food or drink. In commercial food manufacturing, artificial colors come in many forms such as liquids, powders, pastes, and gels. These products are bought in bulk since the foods that contain them (like cereals or candy) are often made in large quantities in factories. Food colorings are also used in home kitchens, as when a cook might add an entire bottle of red dye to cake batter in order to make a red velvet cake.
History of Food Colorings
According to the New World Encyclopedia, the history of commercial food colorings likely started with spices. Prior to that, dyes were already being used for fabrics. Some experts claim that chemical tests of red fabrics found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun in Egypt show the presence of alizarin, a pigment extracted from madder, which is a plant. Another example of a natural dye historically obtained from plants is woad, a shrub that grew abundantly in parts of Europe. The coloring was in the leaves, which were dried and ground, mixed with water and made into a paste.
Today, people associate certain colors with certain flavors, and the color of food can influence the perceived flavor of a food. Sometimes the aim is to simulate a color that is perceived by the consumer as natural, such as adding red coloring to cherries that lack bright color, or adding a bright orange to the peelings of otherwise bland-looking or blotchy oranges.
Why Do We Need Food Coloring?
Some of the reasons why companies use food colorings in foods include: to make food more attractive to the senses; to offset color loss due to exposure to the elements like water and air; and to correct variations in color that occur naturally, like spots on the skins of apples.
The use of bright, eye-catching colors in the marketplace is nothing new. Even in early markets, colors have been used to sell many kinds of products including foods, drinks, medicines, and cosmetics. Today, however, some critics claim that these colors, or some of them, are not just harmless additives and can even cause serious health problems.
Dangers of Food Coloring
Food colorings are tested for safety by various bodies around the world and sometimes different bodies have different views on food color safety. In the United States, FD&C (Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics) code numbers are given to identify food dyes that do not exist in nature. In the European Union, E numbers are used for all additives approved in food applications.
Most other countries have their own regulations and list of food colors, which can be used in various applications, including maximum daily intake limits. Natural colors are not required to be tested by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States and many other countries.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains artificial food dyes are safe, but some research studies have found that dyes can contribute to hyperactive behavior in children.
Pediatrician Benjamin Feingold published findings in the 1970s that suggested there could be a link between artificial colors and hyperactive behavior and allergies. Today, there is still some disagreement on the issue, and scientists, consumers and the government all maintain that more research is needed to come to any conclusion.
Other experts claim that the problem is not with the presence of artificial food colorings, but with over-processing, sugars, salts, and fats that are commonly found in foods that also contain artificial colors.
Recent Changes in the Marketplace
Some popular brands aren’t waiting around to see if newer reports conclude that food colorings cause any health concerns. Some companies are doing away with artificial colors and substituting colors derived from natural sources anyway, since market research shows consumers want more natural foods.
Scientific Magazine reported that Kraft Macaroni & Cheese planned removal of artificial food coloring, (Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 dyes), by January 2016. The pasta now maintains its bright yellow color by using colors from natural ingredients: paprika, turmeric and annatto.
A 2014 report from the marketing research firm Nielsen showed that more than 60 percent of Americans found the lack of artificial colors and flavors was an important factor when making food purchases. Some of the companies that were reportedly making changes to their foods with regard to artificial colors include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Subway.
Panera Bread even went a step further, and published a list of additives that have been banned at the restaurant.
“(We) are committed to food that is 100 percent clean in all our US bakery-cafes and grocery products. At Panera, clean describes food that does not contain artificial preservatives, sweeteners, and flavors along with colors from artificial sources,” according to information available at Panera Bread’s website.
Eliminating Artificial Colors from Your Diet
Check labels carefully when making your food choices. Especially avoid products that contain names with numbers. Make sure to read labels and pass on products listing Red No. 3, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6, Citrus Red No. 2, Green No. 3, Blue No. 1, and Blue No. 2.
Use organic vegetables, fruits, and spices to color frosting and foods naturally. They offer health benefits including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other important elements of healthy food. You can even make that favorite red velvet cake with beet juice and extra cocoa instead of a whole bottle of red food coloring.
Ask your pharmacist for medications without artificial colors, but be prepared if what you ask for is not yet available. Pharmacies are limited in their ability to find dye-free versions of typical products for children and adults such as amoxicillin and chewable vitamins. It’s worth asking for basic ibuprofen with no artificial colors, however. In 2013, the U.S. Library of Medicine reported that a study of patients with chronic, unexplained skin disorders responded positively to medication changes centered on avoidance of coloring agents, particularly FD&C Blue No. 1 and Blue No. 2.
And while you are checking for artificial colors in your foods, check your cosmetics and personal care products for artificial colors too. Sometimes these colors are combined with parabens. Parabens are a class of chemicals used as preservatives in food, industrial products and personal care products, but most widely prevalent in cosmetics and personal care products.
Nearly everyone is exposed to these compounds: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested more than 2,500 urine samples and detected methyl paraben in 99 percent and propyl paraben in 93 percent.
Although parabens are classified as “generally recognized as safe” in foods by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, increasing evidence has drawn attention to their possible health risks, primarily their potential to disrupt the endocrine system, which can interfere with the normal functioning of hormones.
Here are some foods you really have to be careful about:
Flavored Oatmeal – What could be better than oatmeal for breakfast, right? If it has a flavor name attached to it, it likely will also contain an artificial color to go with that.
Popcorn – This is another product that you think would be squeaky clean and all natural, but maybe that brand you selected is using an artificial color to make the product look tasty to you.
Smoothies – The flavors such as strawberry and blueberry might look beautiful in the bottle and also be totally artificial.
Salad Dressings – You’re not really going to load up that delicious and healthy salad of fresh organic lettuces and vegetables with a half cup of artificially colored dressing, are you? Look for healthier choices like olive oil and vinegar, or lemon juice and herbs.
Peanut Butter – Some brands contain hydrogenated oils and zinc oxide, the ingredient that makes sunblock white. Look for brands that are 100 percent peanuts. You’ll love the taste and avoid all those artificial colors and additives.
Just because a color found in your food is from a natural source doesn’t mean it will automatically be a healthy choice. Cochineal extract (a red dye made from insects) is not the only natural dye that can pose a potential health risk if too much is used as an ingredient. Serious allergic reactions have also been reported with too much saffron, which provides a yellow food coloring in some natural products. The amount of the added color or combinations of ingredients are still factors to consider.
Do your own research online and don’t be afraid to ask questions about any ingredients from companies making products you buy. Use social media connections, web sites contact forms, or consumer hotline telephone numbers.
Consult with your healthcare provider about your concerns relating to artificial colors in medications or in foods you eat often. Remember that artificial food colorings have no nutritional value or benefits for you. You won’t miss them when they are gone.