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