Food Coloring: Know Your Facts

Food coloring, or food dye, is a substance that enhances or modifies the color of food when added to it. But why would we want to change the color of food, you may ask? The main reason is aesthetics. Whether to compensate for the loss of color or whether you wish to give identity to your cake by decorating it, we all eat with our eyes first and we expect that correctly and pleasantly colored food will taste good.

There are two categories of food coloring:

  • Certifiable color additives, or artificial food colors, are those that are man made. They are widely used because the range of colors they provide is practically infinite and due to their lower cost. They are also flavorless and bond well with food. Before releasing one of these colors into the market, they have to undergo a process of certification to ensure they are safe to use.
  • Colors exempt from certification, or natural food colors, are those derived from natural sources, usually from vegetables or minerals or even animals. Due to the origin of these colors, they might in some cases add unwanted flavors to the food. They have a more limited range of colors, and even if they are exempt from certification, they still undergo testing as they must comply with rules and regulations.


Coloring has been added to food for centuries, and the first artificial food dye was created as early as 1856 by William Henry Perkin. Using food coloring eventually became the norm, however the first colors created were not always harmless. By 1906, the United States Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) put in place some regulations to prohibit the use of toxic colors in food. Today, following extensive testing, there are only 7 artificial colors that are certified for use in the United States, and using those an infinite range of other colors can be created. [3] [7]


By this point you might be wondering just how harmful artificial food colors might be. You are not alone. There have been numerous studies conducted and anecdotes told associating artificial food colors to different health conditions, but to find out what’s myth and what’s reality, we have done some research to find the answers.


Case Study A: Food coloring causes hyperactivity/ADHD in children

The first study related to the relationship between food coloring and hyperactivity was done in 1970 by Dr Benjamin Feingold. Another study was completed in 2007 by McCann et al studying the effect of groups of food dyes on a number of children. However, both studies had limitations: they were conducted on a small sample of the population, they relied on anecdotal reports by participants, they failed to duplicate study findings, and neither study was able to isolate a specific food dye and link it to a specific behaviour. As such, there is no solid evidence to support a cause and effect relationship, and to date there is no scientific proof that food coloring causes hyperactivity/ADHD. [1] [2]


Case Study B: Red food coloring causes allergies

There has been much discussion about whether food coloring causes allergies, specifically artificial color Red Dye #40, however reports of allergic reactions have been anecdotal for the most part. In this case it is important to understand what causes an allergic reaction. A food allergy is defined as “an immune system-mediated adverse reaction to food proteins.” Artificial food coloring is made using chemicals and does not contain protein, and is therefore unlikely to cause an allergic reaction, but it might cause an intolerance. What you might not know is that some natural red dyes are extracted from bugs called cochineal, which are essentially protein, and therefore this food dye can possibly cause allergic reactions. [6] [8]


Case Study C: Caramel food coloring causes tumors

During the manufacture process of caramel food coloring, a chemical compound called 4-MEI could form as a by-product. It can also form when roasting coffee beans or when grilling meat, so it is not a new addition specifically related to food coloring, but has been part of the human diet for a very long time. A 2007 study done on rats and mice in relation to 4-MEI showed no conclusive results in rats and an increased incidence of lung tumors in mice. However, these studies were done using much higher levels of 4-MEI than humans would normally consume, and the correct interpretation of the test results has been questioned. The FDA continue their tests on caramel food coloring, but have declared that the current levels of consumption of this color by humans does not present any immediate or short-term danger. [9] [10]


Case Study D: Only processed food contains food coloring

Pretty decorated cakes at your local bakery are not the only type of food that contains food dye, though they might be the most obvious. While it is now widely known that processed foods such as candies and soft drinks contain food coloring, it might come as a surprise that some natural foods such as oranges are sometimes dyed to ensure there are no variations in color. Other items you might not suspect contain food dye are orange cheese, pickles, cereal bars and even kids’ vitamins. However, please note that the FDA analyses coloring in each of these items before they are released on the market to ensure they are within regulation limits, and they keep on monitoring the products once they’re released on the market. [2] [4] [5]


What does this all mean? It is important to remember that there is a difference between research in a controlled environment with scientific evidence, and someone stating they had an allergic reaction to a substance, when it could have been something else they consumed at the same time causing the reaction. We live in an era where everyone has a story to share and an opinion to state, so it is all the more important to differentiate facts from stories.


The FDA does rigorous testing on all food colors and only approves those that are considered risk-free and safe for consumption, so you don’t need to get rid of the food dyes in your bakers’ pantry! In fact, when you think about it, the biggest problem with food coloring might be that it makes overly processed food attractive for children. This draws them away from fresh and nutritious food and towards items containing large amounts of sugar and fat, so you are better off baking them a cake at home and decorating it yourself, knowing exactly what ingredients went into the making of it.