A beautiful but non-edible rainbow;

Who doesn’t love looking at all kinds of colour? We fall in love with the look of highly colourful foods, especially those baked foods. I mean who doesn’t love looking at those decorated cakes and cookies and marvelling at the talent employed for creating them? Many of us know today that these food dyes and food additives pause a serious threat to our health. Unlike in the recent past, most of us now know that chemical additives and the consumption of any unnatural, highly processed and non-food stuff are a major No No and that we should steer clear of them! However, it is mind boggling how while we do make these choices for ourselves, the regulations are not yet 100% on board with this! Walk through the aisles of any supermarket, and read through most of the labels, you will find a puzzling large amount of additives, food colourants, chemical components in almost every product on the shelves! How come those are still allowed?!! How come foods still contain Red #40, Yellow #5 and Yellow #6, when these have all been linked to hyperactivity, allergy and even cancer! Yes! It is true. According to Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), these  three most widely used dyes contain cancer-causing agents. Let alone the artificial colour Red #3, which is still in commercial use, despite having been identified by the FDA as a carcinogen!!

While there is much talk about studies being limited and not 100% proven without a shadow of a doubt (as most are still being observed and under study), links have been made, and risks have been identified. And even if it were a limited or small chance, aren’t we better off not gambling on our health?

I personally have made the choice a long time ago, and I am all for consuming natural, organic, real food. If you too have taken the plunge into the world of real and natural food, then hats off to you. However, if you are new to this, not sure what the fuss is about, and not knowing the real issue here, then I have written this article for you, hoping that it will answer your questions, and will help you make the choice that is right for you.

So let’s take a look at this, if you do not wish to read the full article and are here to learn how to make the natural vegan food colourings at home, then watch the video below. However, if you are interested to learn more about this and understand what the big deal is, read on, as I have gone into the details of this…

Food colouring (or colour additives)

Is any dye, pigment or substance that imparts colour when it is added to food or drink. These food colours come in many forms consisting of liquids, powders, gels, and pastes. These colour additives are not restricted to commercial food production but are also used in domestic food preparation, especially where baking, cake decorating and candy making are concerned.


Basic Instincts

By instinct, our brains are made to associate different colours to probable nutritional content (orange carrots, red peppers, purple cabbage..) therefore, we are naturally attracted to colourful foods as a way to ensure we eat a spectrum of colours (nutrients). We also tend to associate certain colors with certain flavors, and the color of food can influence the perceived flavor in anything from candy to wine.

As such, manufacturers sometimes aim to appeal to these mental associations/reactions and find that simulating a colour that is perceived by the consumer as natural, makes the product more appealing and thus more likely to be purchased. A good example of this is adding red colouring to glacé cherries (which would otherwise be beige).

In general, colour additives are used in foods for many reasons including:

  • To make food more attractive, appealing, appetizing, and informative
  • Offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions
  • Correct natural variations in color
  • Enhance colors that occur naturally
  • Provide color to colorless and “fun” foods
  • Allow consumers to identify products on sight, like candy flavors or medicine dosages


How did the problem start?

1. Food Colours in History

(good to know)

According to Meggos’s 1995 “Food colours: an international perspective”, the addition of colorants to foods is thought to have occurred in Egyptian cities as early as 1500 BC, where turmeric, saffron and paprika were used to add flavour and colour to food to make it more appealing. Also when candy makers added natural extracts and wine to improve their products’ appearance (pp. 59–65).

“During the Middle Ages (5th-15th century), the economy in the European countries was based on agriculture, and the peasants were accustomed to producing their own food locally and/or trading within the village communities. Under feudalism, foodstuffs were mainly regarded as means to survive. Aesthetic aspects were not considered, at least not by the vast majority of the generally very poor population. This situation changed with urbanisation at the beginning of the Modem Ages, when trade, especially the import of precious spices and colours from climatically favoured countries, emerged. The new citizenship began to open new markets and was at the same time the main customer for the improved goods.”  

The Legislation of Food Colours in Europe.


(the following segments are extracted from “The Legislation of Food Colours in Europe”, and the “Historical Development of Food Colouration” by Applied Science Publishers, and”A Global Perspective on the History, Use, and Identification of Synthetic Food Dyes” by the Journal of Chemical Education.)

This situation changed with urbanization at the beginning of the Modern Age, when trade emerged—especially the import of precious spices and colors. One of the very first food laws, created in Augsburg, Germany, in 1531, concerned spices or colorants and required saffron counterfeiters to be burned.With the onset of the industrial revolution, people became dependent on foods produced by others. These new urban dwellers demanded food at low cost. Analytical chemistry was still primitive and regulations few. The adulteration of foods flourished. Heavy metal and other inorganic element-containing compounds turned out to be cheap and suitable to “restore” the color of watered-down milk and other foodstuffs, some more lurid examples being:

  • Red lead (Pb3O4) and vermillion (HgS) were routinely used to color cheese and confectionery.
  • Copper arsenite (CuHAsO3) was used to recolor used tea leaves for resale. It also caused two deaths when used to color a dessert in 1860.

Sellers at the time offered more than 80 artificial coloring agents, some invented for dyeing textiles, not foods.


…Thus, with potted meat, fish and sauces taken at breakfast he would consume more or less Armenian bole, red lead, or even bi-sulphuret of mercury. At dinner with his curry or cayenne he would run the chance of a second dose of lead or mercury; with pickles, bottled fruit and vegetables he would be nearly sure to have copper administered to him; and while he partook of bon-bons at dessert, there was no telling of the number of poisonous pigments he might consume. Again his tea if mixed or green, he would certainly not escape without the administration of a little Prussian blue…

– Arthur James Amos “Pure Food and Pure Food Legislation” p. 12


Many color additives had never been tested for toxicity or other adverse effects. Historical records show that injuries, even deaths, resulted from tainted colorants! In 1851, about 200 people were poisoned in England, 17 of them fatally, directly as a result of eating adulterated lozenges. In 1856, mauveine, the first synthetic color, was developed by Sir William Henry Perkin and by the turn of the century, unmonitored color additives had spread through Europe and the United States in all sorts of popular foods, including ketchup, mustard, jellies, and wine. Originally, these were dubbed ‘coal-tar’ colors because the starting materials were obtained from bituminous coal.

Many synthesized dyes were easier and less costly to produce and were superior in coloring properties when compared to naturally derived alternatives. Some synthetic food colorants are diazo dyes. Diazo dyes are prepared by coupling of a diazonium compound with a second aromatic hydrocarbons. The resulting compounds are deeply colored. The attractiveness of the synthetic dyes is that their color, lipophilicity, and other attributes can be engineered by the design of the specific dyestuff. Yellow shades are often achieved by using acetoacetanilide. Red colors are often azo compounds. The pair indigo and indigo carmine exhibit the same blue color, but the former is soluble in lipids, and the latter is water soluble because it has been fitted with sulfonate functional groups.


2. History of regulation

Referencing the FDA Magazine Article “A Century of Ensuring Safe Foods & Cosmetics, 2009
Pay special attention to the names, do they sound anywhere near something edible?

The Concerns over food safety led to numerous regulations throughout the world. German food regulations released in 1882 stipulated the exclusion of dangerous minerals such as arsenic, copper, chromium, lead, mercury and zinc, which were frequently used as ingredients in colorants. In contrast to today, these first laws followed the principle of a negative listing (substances not allowed for use); they were already driven by the main principles of today’s food regulations all over the world, since all of these regulations follow the same goal: the protection of consumers from toxic substances and from fraud. In the United States, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 reduced the permitted list of synthetic colors from 700 down to seven. The seven dyes initially approved were Ponceau 3R (FD&C Red No. 1), amaranth (FD&C Red No. 2), erythrosine (FD&C Red No. 3), indigotine (FD&C Blue No. 2), Light Green SF (FD&C Green No. 2), Naphthol yellow 1 (FD&C Yellow No. 1), and Orange 1 (FD&C Orange No. 1). Even with updated food laws, adulteration continued for many years and this, together with more recent adverse press comments on food colors and health, has continued to contribute to consumer concern about color addition to foodstuffs.

In the 20th century, the improvement of chemical analysis and the development of trials to identify the toxic features of substances added to foods led to the replacement of the negative lists by lists of substances allowed to be used for the production and the improvement of foods. This principle is called a positive listing, and almost all recent legislations are based on it. Positive listing implies that substances meant for human consumption have been tested for their safety, and that they have to meet specified purity criteria prior to their approval by the corresponding authorities. In 1962, the first EU directive (62/2645/EEC) approved 36 colorants, of which 20 were naturally derived and 16 were synthetic. This directive did not list which food products the colorants could or could not be used in. At that time, each member state could designate where certain colors could and could not be used. In Germany, for example, quinoline yellow was allowed in puddings and desserts, but tartrazine was not. The reverse was true in France. This was updated in 1989 with 89/107/EEC, which concerned food additives authorized for use in foodstuffs.


3. Current regulation

Referencing Food Safety Magazine Article “Color Additives: FDA’s Regulatory Process and Historical Perspectives” (link below)

While naturally derived colors are not required to be certified by a number of regulatory bodies throughout the world (including the U.S. FDA), they still need to be approved for use in that country. Food colorings are tested for safety by various bodies around the world and sometimes different bodies have different views on food color safety.

FDA’s permitted colors are classified as subject to certification or exempt from certification in Code of Federal Regulations – Title 21 Part 73 & 74, both of which are subject to rigorous safety standards prior to their approval and listing for use in foods.

  • Certified colors are synthetically produced and are used widely because they impart an intense, uniform color, are less expensive, and blend more easily to create a variety of hues. There are nine certified color additives approved for use in the United States. Certified food colors generally do not add undesirable flavors to foods.
  • Colors that are exempt from certification include pigments derived from natural sources such as vegetables, minerals, or animals. Nature derived color additives are typically more expensive than certified colors and may add unintended flavors to foods. Examples of exempt colors include annatto, beet extract, caramel, beta-carotene, turmeric and grape skin extract. This list contains substances which may have synthetic origins, such as nature identical beta-carotene.

In the United States, FD&C numbers (which indicate that the FDA has approved the colorant for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics) are given to approved synthetic food dyes that do not exist in nature, while in the European Union, E numbers are used for all additives, both synthetic and natural, that are approved in food applications. The food colors are known by E numbers that begin with a 1, such as E100 (turmeric) or E161b (lutein). The safety of food colors and other food additives in the EU is evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority. Color Directive 94/36/EC, enacted by the European Commission in 1994, outlines permitted natural and artificial colors with their approved applications and limits in different foodstuffs. This is binding to all member countries of the EU. Any changes have to be implemented into their national laws within a given time frame. In non-EU member states, food additives are regulated by their national authorities, which usually, but not in all cases, try to harmonize with the laws adopted by the EU. Most other countries have their own regulations and list of food colors which can be used in various applications, including maximum daily intake limits.

Practical Solutions

While one might jump to the conclusion that best we stay away from all kinds of food colourings, which is not at all a bad idea. We do however need to colour some foods in keeping the fun factor that we got so used to. A themed birthday cake is something most children look forward to and while there are many ways to do natural decorations on cakes and cupcakes, most would still want to go all out with the colours and designs… The good news is, natural dyes have been around centuries and since ancient times, and they can tint our foods without all the health hazards posed by the synthetic ones. Nowadays, many recipes have been posted on how to make your own food colours at home using edible plants including spices, vegetables, fruits and so on (watch the video at the top of this article)…

This is how you can make the basic colours from which you can derive any other colour.

Red: Beetroots (juiced or dehydrated into powder)
Orange: Carrots (juiced or dehydrated into powder)
Yellow: Saffron or turmeric (mixed with water or powdered)
Green: Spinach (juice or dehydrated into powder)
Blue: Red cabbage boiled plus baking soda
Purple: Red cabbage boiled

When making natural food coloring:

  • Expect that you’re not going to get the same freakishly saturated colors as you would from the artificial stuff.
  • For an extra dark color, you may want to start with a light, chocolate based cake or frosting.
  • If you’re dying eggs for Easter, you’ll need to soak the eggs much longer than with the store bought kits. But the payoff to your time and experimentation will be festively colorful food without a toxic overload. And because some are celebrating Easter today, I will end this post with how to naturally dye your easter eggs in this video below. Look how gorgeous those eggs are!

Hope this article and all this information is useful and that it clears out some of the confusion. Perhaps it is worth considering putting back all those foods that include synthetic food colourings, additives and preservatives back on the shelf and sticking with the good old natural ways instead. I know I have made this choice and do not feel like I am missing out on anything. In fact I eat amazing food and ever since I did this, good flavours have come back to my kitchen. I can no longer tolerate over sweetened foods, and all those unnatural medicinal flavours. In fact, once all that is out of your system, you can taste them and spot anytime time they are included and not announced. And they truly taste like YUK!

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