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Food Colors: A Spectrum of Thoughts

When I think of food colors, I instantly think of baking cookies with my mom and sisters during the holidays as a kid.  My sisters and I would always get into fights over who got to squeeze the brightly colored tubes of food coloring into the batter.  And of course, I recalled the days of summer.  As my childhood summers mostly consisted of long days outside at the pool or playing games of “kick the can” with friends, frozen popsicles were our number one choice to cool down from the summer heat.  All of these memories are full of color – or, I should say, colorful food. I don’t think my fond memories from childhood would be the same without these summer and holiday favorites, and they would not be the same without their familiar color.

So, what is a food color?  A food color, or color additive, is any dye, pigment or substance that imparts color when added or applied to a food, drug, cosmetic, or the human body.  Foods like packaged macaroni and cheese, flavored yogurts, fruit juices, ketchup and other sauces and dressings, sports drinks, and treats such as candy and frozen popsicles use food colors to add or enhance their color.  Can you imagine any of these foods without their trademark colors?  Many foods would have no color at all or would appear dull without food colors to make them more appealing.

However, food colors have been the subject of occasional controversy. In the early 1970s a study raised concerns about a potential link between food colors and increased hyperactivity in children.  However, numerous scientific studies and reviews conducted since then have found no causal link between consumption of food colors and ADHD in children.      

The safety of food colors has long been established.  All color additives currently used in food and beverage products in the U.S. have been reviewed for safety and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  FDA and other regulatory bodies around the world, as well as most experts and researchers, agree that the scientific evidence does not support a link between color additives and cancer.  A few studies dating back to the 1960s suggested a link; however, the results were attributed to other factors and not the colors.

A food supply without the use of food colors would mean no colorful icing on holiday cookies or birthday cakes, a summer without colorful frozen popsicles, and less visually appealing foods.  Food colors are a safe way to add color to our plates and also contribute to the enjoyment of our food, which is something that I believe we should not take for granted.

What were some of your favorite fun-colored foods growing up?

Editor’s Note:  “Food Colors:  A Spectrum of Thoughts” by Matt Thoman originally appeared on the International Food Information Council Foundation’s Food Insights blog on August 20, 2010

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  • Steve Gilman

    From our early hunter-gather beginnings humans may be hard-wired to select a variety of brightly colored foods as indicators of their flavor and health effects. There’s substantial research to verify these color-coded nutritional qualities. Yellow, orange and red-orange plants, for instance, have abundant carotenoids, including beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein – powerful antioxidants and anti-cancer agents. Carotenes enhance the immune system, destroy oxygen free radicals in lipid fatty acids, guard cells against UV radiation and protect against colorectal, lung, breast, uterine and prostate cancer. Foods rich in these antioxidants include squash, carrots, tomatoes, citrus fruit, and apricots.
    Anthocyanins, complex flavinoid antioxidants, dominate in the blue, purple and red plants. Led by blueberries, the blackberries, raspberries, cranberries, tart dark cherries, purple and red grapes, deep purple plums as well as purple cabbage and beets contain potent anti-cancer compounds. They also support connective tissue regeneration and reduce inflammation with an ability to protect capillaries from oxidative damage and reduce cholesterol.
    There’s a major difference between the natural colors present in real food and their artificial food-coloring imitators, however. Squeeze various fruits and vegetables through a juicer and you’ll see swirls of incredibly vivid reds, day-glo oranges, dazzling yellows and brilliant greens. The food industry has long known that eaters equate attractive flavors with particular colors – the flashier the better when it comes to selling products to kids. Food processor General Mills is not alone in sinking huge budgets into developing artificially colored foods to gain market share, especially in the highly competitive breakfast cereal business – their sugary Trix cereal has gone through a half dozen color additions and alterations since it was first produced in 1954.
    But the dye additives used by processors to make their packaged food seem more palatable pale in comparison to the real thing and have none of the antioxidant qualities. In short, food colorings are FAKE health indicators – and their safety as food additives is far from certain.
    Despite bans on Red No.2 and some other dyes, the FDA still permits seven artificial colorings to be used in food, despite continuing controversy over their safety. Many of them contain or are manufactured from coal tar, linked to asthma-like reactions, hyperactivity and depression in susceptible people. Tartrazine (in Yellow No.5) can cause allergic reactions in humans and erythrosine (Red No.3) is linked to thyroid tumors in rats. A verified study by the Food Standards Agency in the UK linked synthetic coloring and flavoring additives in sweets and juices with changes in children’s behavior, including hyperactivity, restlessness and tantrums. Health experts are calling for a ban saying the additives used to make food more colorful or alter the flavor have no nutritional benefit to the human body while producing quantifiable negative behaviors in children.
    However, for companies looking to safely enhance the color of their products there are food-derived Organic food color alternatives on the market. Blue is made from red cabbage, for example, Red from beet juice and citric acid and Yellow is made from turmeric. But overall, it’s high time we grew up from our susceptibility to the favorite fun-colored foods that are constantly marketed to us — and choose real food.