Red 40, annatto, and anthocyanin. While these ingredients may sound foreign and intimidating, chances are you have eaten all three of them. Red 40 gives Red Velvet cake its distinctive color, annatto is often used to add an orange tinge to sherbet ice cream, and anthocyanin gives blue corn chips their exciting color. These three ingredients are just a few of the many food colors we eat on a daily basis.

Food colors often get a bad rep for being artificial and dangerous. However, it is important to understand their purpose, the difference between natural and artificial colors, and plans for the future before coloring food dyes as bad guys.

Imagine searching through a bag of lollipops. You are looking for the pink lollipop, since cherry is your favorite flavor. You finally find it, buried at the bottom of the bag. Excitedly, you peel off the wrapper and pop it in your mouth. To your surprise, you are not greeted by the sweet cherry flavor you expected, but by the sour tang of green apple. This would definitely throw you for a loop, and is exactly why food coloring is used. As described by the American Chemistry Association article Eating With Your Eyes: The Chemistry of Food Coloring, people prefer when the color of their food matches its flavor. Cherries are pink, so cherry lollipops should also be pink. This is also why relish is colored green, and mustard yellow. The ability to match color and flavor is a key use of food dyes.

However, food color does more than signify the taste of a food, it also helps us differentiate between what is safe to eat, and what is not. Without food color, a food may be covered in dark speckles, multicolored spots, or be uneven in color which would often be mistaken as signs of spoilage. However, add some food color, and the food no longer has an appearance associated with mold and spoiled food. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) explains that food colors also work to offset changes “due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture, and storage conditions”. Processed foods are especially reliant on food colors, as the many steps they go through before reaching the store would otherwise leave them with unappetizing colors.

The world of food dyes is vast, with ingredients found everywhere from the Canary Islands to South America. However, all food colors can be sorted into two categories, natural and synthetic. The FDA states that natural colors are derived from natural sources, such as fruits and vegetables. Used by the ancient Egyptians and Mayans, food dyes are nothing new. Today, the most common natural dyes include carotenoids (for red and orange colors), chlorophyll (greens), anthocyanin (blues), and turmeric (oranges). The seeds of the achiote tree, rich in carotenoids, are used to derive Annatto, a red-orange food color in sherbet ice creams. A natural colorant that has made the front page is Natural Red 4, also labeled as carmine, carminic acid, or cochineal. This color, derived from the cochineal insect and used in red coloring, made headlines after customer reaction prompted Starbucks to remove it from all strawberry flavored products. Additionally, because cochineal can cause a severe allergic reaction in those sensitive to it, it must be explicitly listed as an ingredient, if present. For other natural colors, the FDA considers a simple “colorings” or “color added” on the label as adequate. In addition to being derived from sources consumer may feel uncomfortable with, such as insects and animals, natural dyes have a few other drawbacks. Compared to their synthetic counterparts, natural colors are far more expensive to harvest and process. Their shelf life may also be shorter than synthetic colors. For these reasons, many companies choose to use synthetic food colors.

Synthetic dyes are any colorants that are man-made. The FDA has certified nine color additives for use in the United States. This surprisingly short list is composed of FD&C Blue Nos. 1 and 2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red Nos. 3 and 40, FD&C Yellow Nos. 5 and 6, Orange B, and Citrus Red No. 2.

There are two main reasons artificial food colors raise concern. One is the presence of a low level of carcinogens. Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 contain benzene, a human and animal carcinogen permitted in low, safe levels. The FDA believes the levels found in food dye are safe, however, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and other organization believe that the levels of benzene absorbed by the body through food color are higher than the FDA believes. The CSPI has also released reports that in addition to likely being carcinogenic, the artificial dyes allowed by the FDA likely cause hypersensitivity reactions and behavioral problems, or are inadequately tested. This link to behavioral problems is another cause for concern related to artificial colors.

Certification of food colors varies globally, with Red Dye No. 2 being a prime example. The LiveScience piece The Truth About Red Dye No. 2 reports that in 1971 public outcry against Red No. 2, which had been linked to cancer by a soviet scientist, resulted in the FDA declaring the colorant illegal. Mars even temporarily paused production of red M&Ms though they did not contain any Red No. 2. However, the European Food Safety Authority did not do the same, and as recently as 2010 has declared Red No. 2 harmless. This is the exact opposite of Red No. 40, certified and commonly used in America, but due to concerns voiced by the European Food Safety Authority, rarely found in Europe. However, the general trend, as described by the WBUR News article Why M&M’s Are Made With Natural Coloring In The EU And Not The U.S. is for American products to be more likely to contain artificial colors than European products. This is largely due to difference in how artificial colors must be labeled. As described by the study Diet and Nutrition: The Artificial Food Dye Blues, “In Europe, as of July 2010 most foods that contain artificial dyes must carry labels warning they may cause hyperactivity in children.”

Though the FDA has stated that all the colorants certified are safe, the National Geographic article Scientists Make Red Food Dye From Potatoes, Not Bugs explains that the demand for natural colors has risen as artificial food dyes are “linked to allergies and behavioral problems such as hyperactivity in children.” Both producers and scientists have begun responding to this. In 2015, General Mills released a decision to remove all artificial ingredients, including colors. A year later, Mars declared a five-year plan to phase out all artificial colors from its human food products. However, consumer demands are also resulting in changes to natural dyes. Customer dismay at the thought of insect derived red food has helped fuel research into how purple sweet potatoes can be used as an alternative source for red food color.

Eating is a sensory experience. What would a delicious chocolate cake be without the moist texture, amazing smell, and of course the signature dark brown color? However, when it comes to the appearance of our food, it is important to look past the exterior and understand what truly goes into it. Do we really want to add color to our lives?

Taskeen Khan currently attends UIUC. She has previously written for Huffington Post Teen and Islamic Horizons Magazine. Khan has also won several Silver Keys and honorable mentions in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.


Processed foods rely on food colors, as the many steps they go through before reaching the store would otherwise leave them with unappetizing colors.