The use of artificial coloring by the food industry is a long-established practice. Manufacturers add color to help make products look more appealing and delicious, to correct for any seasonal changes in raw ingredients, to enhance colors that may have been lost during processing, and simply to make bland or colorless foods more attractive. But lately, consumers’ strong preference for foods that are free of synthetic additives has many people calling the food industry’s use of artificial colors into question. Read on for a look at some of the most commonly asked questions about food coloring.
1. Is it really necessary to add color to foods?
From the food industry’s perspective, the answer to this question is an emphatic yes. Appearance is the first thing we notice about a food product before we taste or even smell it, so the way that food looks, including its color, hugely influences our opinion of it. This is likely an evolutionary holdover from our early ancestors, who had to rely on visual cues (such as discolored spots on fruit, for example) to determine whether food was safe to eat.
Over time, we’ve also learned to associate different colors with different tastes. For example, red is often associated with the taste of sweet fruits like strawberries, while yellow makes us think of tart, and yellow tastes like lemons. As such, another reason why food manufacturers add color is to show us what flavors we can expect from particular food products. In fact, color can influence our perception of taste so strongly that we can taste things that are not actually in the food. In previous experiments, people have reported that various colors of gelatin tasted differently, even though the ingredients and flavor of the gelatin were identical in all cases.
2. Are all added colors in foods artificial?
In the US, modern food manufacturers use nine different synthetic colors in their products, all of which are certified and regulated by the FDA: blue 1, blue 2, green 3, red 3, red 40, yellow 5, yellow 6, citrus red 2, and orange B. It’s not hard to see why these synthetic colors are popular. They are inexpensive to produce, provide a vibrant effect, and can be added to food without altering their flavor or texture. However, more manufacturers are now choosing to use color derived from natural sources like vegetables or minerals. In the US, these colors do not have to be FDA-certified, but they are still tested for safety and must be used according to particular guidelines.
3. What are some things to consider in replacing artificial colors with natural ones?
When manufacturers choose to make the move from artificial to natural colors, there are many things they need to consider, including:
The limitations of natural colors—Swapping natural colors for synthetic ones is not always a straightforward process because natural colors have certain limitations that synthetic colors don’t. Synthetic colors can provide a bright, vivid shade with a long shelf life under most circumstances, whereas colors that are derived from natural sources may be affected by factors such as acidity, heat, and light. For example, a type of algae known as spirulina is one of the natural sources commonly used to produce blue pigments, but it is not stable in acidic products. This means that spirulina could be used to make a naturally colored blue ice cream or cake frosting, but not a blue, lemon-flavored soft drink. Likewise, beet root produces an appealing pink shade in applications with a low heat process, but it can’t be used in foods that undergo heat treatment during production, as high heat turns the beet root brown.
The cost of producing natural colors—Compared to synthetically produced colorants, natural food colors have a much higher production cost. This is because a whole cultivation process is involved in creating natural colors. Seeds must be specially bred to develop a crop with a high color content; harvests are vulnerable to damage from weather and pests; and pigment composition can change from one harvest to another, thus impacting the availability and quality of the color. The natural color industry is working hard to make natural colors more affordable by finding new ways to optimize pigment content in plants and new and efficient extraction methods.
Consumer expectations—Food manufacturers must also deal with the challenge of consumers who say they want products free from artificial ingredients, but who are not always quick to embrace these products in practice. The breakfast cereal Trix is the most famous recent example of this phenomenon. In 2016, in response to a strong trend toward natural ingredients, General Mills, which manufactures Trix, introduced a new version of the cereal made with natural colors derived from sources like beets and turmeric. However, so many customers complained about the new product that General Mills decided to reintroduce the classic, artificially colored version of the cereal. Clearly, the appetite for “natural” foods is therefore not as universal as it might seem.