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While Mother Nature makes an impressive array of colors, those that would work as food dyes are limited. Food dyes or color additives need to meet certain technical aspects to color food. For example, they need to mix well with other ingredients, not fade and resist temperature changes.

Artificial color additives may also last longer than natural colors, and the variety of colors that can be artificially produced in a lab are almost limitless.1

You may be curious about some of the ingredients in color additives. A green food coloring or dye may contain water; propylene glycol (a synthetic liquid substance that absorbs water and is used as a solvent for food colors and flavors); the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-certified color additives FD&C YELLOW and FD&C BLUE 1; and propylparaben (a preservative). Some green food dyes use spirulina, a blue-green algae, as a colorant.

Common packaged foods like yogurt or cereal may contain color additives, which 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.

Learn more about color additives in the answers to the following common questions.

What is a color additive?

A color additive is any substance that imparts color to a food, drug, cosmetic or the human body.2 Color additives add color to margarine, ketchup, snack foods, soft drinks and baked goods, for example, and they 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. They can also 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, correct natural variations in color, and enhance colors that occur naturally.2

Are color additives safe to eat?

Yes, color additives are safe when used in accordance with FDA regulations.3 FDA has approved nine certified color additives for use in foods:

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

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.3 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.4 FDA analyzes a representative sample of each batch of the color additive from the food manufacturing company or lab to verify that it meets the required identity and specifications before it is used in food. Before 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.3

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.

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