When was the last time you’ve had salmon sushi or enjoyed a refreshing bottle of Coke? Believe it or not, these foods are coloured, because the demand for food has caused the natural colour to not match what we expect. We all want salmon, but none of us want gray or whatever colour salmon. Before you start a social media crisis for the salmon industry, it’s worthwhile to point out that the colouring is something pretty much the same chemical that’s in natural salmon food (fish). It’s safe to eat, but if you’re so grossed out by it you can limit your consumption or get the wild ones (for about twice to three times the price). It doesn’t help that Canada’s salmon was experiencing difficulty getting upstream due to environmental changes, so the actual price is probably higher. To feed all of us humans, we need food colouring. Without food colouring a lot of our food would look disgusting, so think of it as food cosmetics. Imagine skittles all off-white or yellowish, yum!
Take one, any one!
You may think of food colouring as a relatively new concept, but people have been dying foods for centuries. Of course, back then all the Egyptians could cook up were some plant extracts and wine to may food look a bit more appetizing. When the industrial revolution came rolling, a lot of really dangerous synthetic food colours were used. Red lead, vermillion, Prussian blue, stuff you’d expect in textiles NOT food. People actually died eating lozenges and drinking tea, that’s how bad it got. Nowadays we have the European Union (EU) and the Food and Drug Association (FDA) and they have lists of approved artificial and natural food colours.
Think a little more before jumping into that TARDIS.
Natural food dyes are additives that come from natural sources, like caramelized sugar, seeds, and insects. Blue is very rare, and it’s a constant challenge to develop more. Technically they exist but there are issues with shelf life and the food matrix. Some common natural dyes include carotenoids, chlorophyll, anthocyanin, turmeric, and betanin.
So there’s no such thing as a black canary?
Carotenoids are anywhere between deep red to yellow in colour, and very common. A common one is beta-carotene, which is what makes pumpkins and sweet potatoes orange. Since beta-carotene is soluble in fat, it’s mostly seen in cheese and margarine. Carotenoids are very prevalent in nature and thus very easy to produce as food dyes; they serve to collect light energy in plants and various animals consume such plants gaining reddish pigments (i.e. lobsters, flamingos, salmon, etc.). They are also found in human eyes in the form of macular pigments so eat your vegetables! Overconsumption of beta-carotene can actually cause your skin to turn orange, but it’s harmless so think of it as observing the nature of canaries.
Ever wonder why you don’t get these in bars or cookies?
This is a chemical we all come to learn about in school, but little do you know it’s a natural food colouring. Chlorophyll is found in all leafy green plants and is the cornerstone of the photosynthesis process. It’s gained popularity as a healthy alternative for artificial food dyes and you can find this colouring minty or lime snacks but since it’s affected by pH, temperature, lighting, and air uses are limited (i.e. ice cream). Well, to be honest, a lot of natural food dyes have that problem. There’s a group of more stable, semi-synthetic salt made from this called chlorophyllin that sees use in medicine as well.
Some of the few blue natural food coloring comes from a group of similar compounds called anthocyanins. They’re anywhere from black to deep purple to more or less blue, and they can be found in blueberries, grapes, black soybeans, and purple cauliflower. These are water-soluble, so they are very easy to use in foods. We’re talking sodas, jelly, even blue tortilla chips. Anthocyanins are reported by some studies to contain antioxidants capable of staving off cancer, to which the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says:
- There was no basis for a beneficial antioxidant effect from dietary anthocyanins in humans.
- There was no evidence of a cause and effect relationship between the consumption of anthocyanin-rich foods and protection of DNA, proteins and lipids from oxidative damage.
- There was no evidence for the consumption of anthocyanin-rich foods having any “antioxidant”, “anti-cancer”, “anti-ageing”, or “healthy ageing” effects.
Not a sponsor (I drink another brand), but this stuff is pretty good.
As of 2019, there are no clinical trials that can counter what the EFSA Panel on Dietic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (2010) stated.
A while back turmeric was all the rage for its health benefits, something about reducing inflammations. I personally know this subterranean stem, seeing it in traditional Chinese pharmacies since I was five. It’s also prevalent in Indian curry, with its almost mustard-like flavour. But what if I told you turmeric can also be used as a natural food dye? Some companies turn to use spices to colour their foods. It’s also a good acid/base indicator because when you put something basic in there it turns red.
It’s not perfect, but if you’re bored try it out.
Do you like to drink cranberry juice or eat strawberry-flavour yogurt? Are you somebody who frequents deep red cosmetics? Do you want to know what all these have in common? They can all be coloured by carmine, a natural food dye made from carminic acid. The extraction of carminic acid is quite labour-intensive; after all, you have to crush about 70,000 beetles called cochineals to produce a single pound of this stuff. Yep, this is the infamous Natural Red 4. The Aztecs once used this to dye clothes, and production was seen in Persia since at least the Middle Ages. Carmine or E.120 in the EU list of food additives has been proven to cause allergic reactions in rare cases, but at the moment both the FDA and the EU are ok because it poses no threat to the general public. The EFSA, however, decided to at the very least pull it from medicines; using artificial colours instead. If you find carmine, cochineal extract, carminic acid, cochineal, or Natural Red 4 in the ingredients list, this is it.
Yeah, considering Starbucks is frequented by teenage girls, of course, they’ll replace it.
Nowadays, people are promoting natural food colouring over the artificial ones, with YouTube DIYs on how you can make your own. I can understand, considering what they’re made from. But are they really so bad? Check out my next story to find out more. Natural food dyes may be feasible in a domestic environment, but commercially we have a long way to go. Until then, you’re gonna have to live a pretty drab life if you’re only consuming “natural” foods.