Food coloring is one of the most commonly used additives in the food industry. Found in everything from ice cream to breakfast cereals to sausage casings, food coloring has been used by manufacturers for decades to boost the visual appeal of foods, to replace or enhance colors that may have been lost during processing, and to balance out seasonal changes in raw ingredients.
Food coloring can be derived from natural or artificial sources. At present, artificial colors account for nearly half (45%) of the $2.7 billion food colorant market. However, in recent years, there has been a growing movement away from synthetic colors, which has arisen in large part from consumer fears about the safety of these additives and the kind of impact they have on our health.
But are these fears based on fact? As is the case with many types of food additives, misinformation and misconceptions continue to circulate about artificial food coloring despite the fact that their safety has been reaffirmed by a variety of scientific research institutions and government agencies, including the FDA, the European Union, the Scientific Committee for Food, and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives.
Further contributing to the body of evidence establishing the safety of synthetic food coloring, the International Association of Color Manufacturers (IACM) recently supported three studies that explored and tested the safety of two different types of colors (Red No. 40 and Yellow No. 5), as well as the exposure levels of a number of Food, Drugs & Cosmetics-certified color additives that are approved for use in the United States. Read on for a look at the key takeaways from these three publications.
Red No. 40
Also known as Allura Red AC, Red No. 40 is an internationally approved food color additive. However, consumers have been concerned about this artificial color ever since the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conducted an evaluation of food color additives in 2013 that suggested that Allura Red AC could be linked to potential genotoxicity (a destructive impact on the DNA, RNA, or genetic information of a cell).
While genotoxicity is indeed cause for concern, the EFSA’s conclusions were largely based on the results of a single research publication from 2002, rather than from multiple, independent sources. To further investigate the possible relationship between Red No. 40 and genotoxicity, an IACM research group led by research director Dr. Maria Bastaki embarked on a more in-depth exploration of the issue at the request of the EFSA. The team’s results, which were published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, found a “clear absence of genotoxicity” connected with the consumption of Allura Red AC. The differences between these results and those of the 2002 study can be attributed to the different methodologies used by the two research groups: Dr. Bastaki and her team conducted their experiments in accordance with FDA standards and with the Good Laboratory Practices (GLP) defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Yellow No. 5
Yellow No. 5, or Tartrazine, was also subject to the same 2013 EFSA evaluation as Red No. 40, and the organization had raised similar concerns about this color’s potential genotoxicity (again, these concerns were based on the results from the same 2002 aforementioned study). To address these concerns, Dr. Bastaki and her research team performed experiments on Tartrazine to affirm its safety. The results were the same as those for the Allura Red AC experiments. As reported in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, there was a “clear absence of genotoxic activity for Tartrazine.” In the Yellow No. 5 experiments, Dr. Bastaki’s team followed GLP guidelines, and it was careful to use doses of the color that mirrored those of the 2002 study that gave rise to the EFSA’s original concerns.
Daily Intake and Safety
The third IACM study, also led by Dr. Bastaki, focused on the estimated daily intake of food color additives in the US and related safety issues. Essentially, the purpose of this comprehensive research was to investigate the concerns that American adults and children are consuming unsafe levels of artificial food colorants on a daily basis.
In order to develop a detailed picture of food coloring consumption levels in the American population, the research team analyzed data from the food and beverage industry on the use of 12 FDA-approved artificial colors in consumer products, as well as data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which focused on Americans’ food consumption habits. (Statistical adjustments were made to ensure that the food intakes were as realistic as possible.)
Dr. Bastaki’s research team found that, for average and high-intake consumers of all ages, exposure to food color additives was well below the acceptable daily intake. This means that in general, people are not at risk for adverse health effects from artificial food colors, even when they consume a significant amount of color-containing foods. Interestingly, these findings echo those from FDA research published in 2016, thus serving to further establish the safety of synthetic food colorants.