Not So Spooky: Safety Information About Food Coloring and Dyes
From Halloween pumpkin cupcakes to colorful Easter eggs and foaming green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, food coloring and dyes help make food bright and fun. How are these vibrant food colors made?
Whether natural or synthetic, chemistry plays a role in creating all food colorings. Take “natural” red food coloring for example, which is made of crushed cochineal insects. The red color of the cochineal insects must be isolated, extracted and processed to become a dye.
While Mother Nature makes an impressive array of colors, those that would work as food dyes are limited. Food dyes need to meet certain technical aspects to color food— they need to mix well with other ingredients, not fade and resist temperature changes, for example. Food scientists have developed a range of synthetic dyes and colors for people to enjoy in a variety of foods and drinks.
For example, a green food dye coloring or dye available at a neighborhood grocery store may contain the ingredients water, propylene glycol (a synthetic liquid substance that absorbs water and is used as a solvent for food colors and flavors), the FDA-certified color additives FD&C YELLOW 5, FD&C BLUE 1 and propylparaben (a preservative). Some green food dyes use spirulina, a blue-green algae, as a colorant.
Thanks to chemistry, artificial food colorings may last longer than natural colors. In addition, there is little limit to the variety of colors that can be artificially produced in a lab. Beyond the baking aisle, common packaged foods like yogurt or cereal may also contain food coloring and dyes, also known as color additives. These ingredients can make a food product more eye catching or consistent in coloring. Soymilk, for example, may have a very small amount of color additive to make it appear whiter and more like dairy milk.
Whether it is special D-I-Y birthday cupcake icing or strawberry yogurt, the uses of color additives in foods are abundant. Learn more about the uses and safety of color additives in answers to common questions below.
What is a color additive?
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a color additive is any substance that imparts color to a food, drug, cosmetic or the human body. In food and beverages, color additives add color to margarine, ketchup, snack foods, soft drinks and baked goods, for example. Color additives come from both synthetic and natural sources.
Why are color additives used in food and drinks?
Color additives help enhance a food’s natural color and can provide other fun color to foods like popsicles or cupcakes. Color additives can also help offset color loss in food due to exposure to light, air, moisture or temperature extremes, as well as storage conditions.
Are color additives safe to eat?
Yes. FDA has approved nine certified color additives for use in foods. In addition to this, FDA regulations specify the types of foods that can use color additives, the maximum amounts of a color additive allowed in a food, and how to identify color additives on a food’s label. For example, the FDA regulates for safety the yellow food dye that makes margarine yellow, and the green food dye that makes mint ice cream green.
How does FDA test food dyes and colorings for safety?
Synthetic color additives, also known as certified colors, undergo batch certification, a process in which FDA analyzes a representative sample of each batch of the color additive from the food manufacturing company or lab to check that it meets the required identity and specifications before used in food. Prior to certifying a batch, the FDA also analyzes the chemical composition to help make sure it is safe.
Are natural food dyes and colorings healthier than artificial food colorings?
“Natural” food dyes are not necessarily healthier than synthetic ones. Whether they are natural or synthetic, FDA regulates all food coloring and dyes as color additives.