Food Coloring’s Come a Long Way

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Dr. Sheldon Margen is professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. They are the authors of several books, including "The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition."

As we enter the last year of this millennium, everybody is starting to take stock of how far we’ve come in the last century and how far we’re likely to go in the next. Even something as basic as food hovers precariously in between the farm and the laboratory. Our food today is often artificially flavored, colored, defatted, fortified, enriched, freeze-dried, and on and on.

And although manipulating the food supply in certain technical ways is fairly recent, the use of color additives is nothing new at all.

Cosmetics have been artificially colored since at least 5000 BC; the ancient Egyptians wrote of drug colorants. And from what we can gather, the coloring of food started around 1500 BC. For most of recorded history, color additives came from natural substances, such as turmeric, paprika and saffron.


But it wasn’t until much later in human history, as we got closer to the 20th century, that the marketing possibilities for colored products drove an industry in which colors were developed in the chemist’s lab. That’s when the trouble really began.

In the late 1800s, for example, potentially poisonous mineral- and metal-based compounds were used to produce some coloring products. It wasn’t even unusual to find toxic chemicals in the tints of certain candies and pickles; even deadly poisons like arsenic started to show up in additives. Some food processors actually used color additives to cover up poor product quality or food that was already spoiled. To nobody’s surprise, injuries and deaths began to occur.

By 1900, the use of unmonitored color additives was rampant. More than 80 artificial coloring agents were available at that time, some of which were originally intended for dyeing textiles instead of foods. There had been little or no testing of the colors being used in food.


At the beginning of this century, plant, animal and mineral sources of colors were being phased out for economic reasons, and chemically synthesized colors were being derived from aniline, a petroleum product that in its pure form is quite toxic. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act, the first of several laws that allowed the federal government to control color additive use. In 1938, the law was amended to include cosmetics.

In the more than 60 years since the Food and Drug Administration began regulating all color additives, the perceived safety of these substances has gone up and down. During the 1950s, dozens of children got diarrhea from orange Halloween candy and popcorn. During the 1970s, there were concerns about artificial colors causing hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children. More recently, numerous cancer fears have been generated around artificial colors, and as a result many colors have been banned from use.

Many of our readers continue to ask, “Is it safe to use products that contain artificial colors?” For the most part, colors found to be potentially hazardous have been removed from the list of permissible additives. The colors that remain have a very good safety record, although they continue to be under fire as suspected carcinogens.


Red No. 2, long gone from the American marketplace, is a perfect example of what happens when public suspicion is high. In the early 1970s, the Russians conducted some studies that raised questions about the safety of Red No 2. The FDA then carried out extensive tests, which were ultimately inconclusive. Although there was never proof that it was neither safe nor dangerous, the FDA went ahead and banned Red No. 2, partly because of the presumption that the color might cause cancer.

Remember when Mars Candy Co. stopped making red M&Ms;? A lot of companies also stopped making red candies even if they weren’t using Red No. 2 in their products. They were afraid that sales would fall because of the public perception that red candy was dangerous.


Another artificial color, Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine), is known to cause severe allergic reactions in a small segment of the population. It’s widely found in beverages, desserts, processed vegetables, drugs, makeup and other products. For this reason, since the early 1980s, the FDA has required all products containing Yellow No. 5 to list the color on their labels by name (instead of being lumped under “artificial colors”) so that consumers sensitive to the dye can avoid it.

The colors permitted by the FDA fall into two categories: those that the agency certifies by batch (derived primarily from petroleum sources), and the ones exempt from batch certification (obtained largely from plant, animal or other mineral sources, like fruit juice, carmine and titanium dioxide, for example). As of 1993, the new labeling laws required that all certified colors must be listed individually on labels.

According to the FDA, consumers can rest assured that the color additives still being used are safe. The next time you take a blue pill or eat a red Popsicle, it may comfort you to know that those colors have been studied over and over and each batch has been inspected for purity. As with all things, however, moderation is the key. It does not make good sense to consume huge quantities of any one color additive.

If you should have any kind of adverse reaction to a color additive, the FDA wants to hear about it. You can register complaints with the FDA in a number of ways:


* Call the consumer complaint coordinator in your district FDA office. Look in your phone book under the heading U.S Government Agencies, Food and Drug Administration.

* Call the toll-free general number for information about an FDA-regulated product, (888) 463-6332.

* On the Internet, you can get general information about an FDA-regulated product at