What Exactly are Food Dyes and Why Should You Care?

Food dyes are chemicals that are used to add color to food. They can be found in everything from candy and soft drinks to salad dressing and cereal. While they are generally considered safe, there is growing concern about the potential health risks associated with their use. Here’s what you need to know about food dyes and why you should care.

History

An image of William Henry Perky

Food dyes have been a common addition to food ever since ancient civilization. The use of food coloring has been prone to a lot of controversies, primarily revolving around the health effects of these chemicals. That is why food color manufacturers continue to develop new and improved dyes that are considered safe for human consumption.

Ancient Times

Close-up image of a saffron crocus

Food dyes have been around since ancient times. One of the earliest recorded uses of food coloring was in ancient Egypt, thousands of years ago, where extracted plant dyes and minerals were used to color their food. Saffron is a famous plant used as a food coloring agent during 700 BCE.

In addition to coloring food, these additives are used as cosmetics and hair dyes. It is also said the food colorings were used by Romans to color wine and bread. [1]

Industrial Age

Vintage candies in jars

Thousands of years later, in the Middle Ages, food dyes became more prominent in commercial use. However, its popularity also led to the creation of various legislations against its use.

One of the earliest legislation against food dyes was recorded in 1396, wherein a French act against the coloring of butter was done. [2]

Years later, the industrial age came. Despite the various warnings and legislations about the use of food colorings, these additives were still commonly used in sweets to make them look more appealing.

The 19th century marked the beginning of the commercial production of various synthetic food colorings. In 1856, William Henry Perkin accidentally created the first synthetic organic dye, called mauveine, which was initially called “coal-tar colors” due to originating from bituminous coal. This discovery led to the production of various other synthetic dyes in the succeeding years. [3]

After the discovery of mauveine, the popularity of food dyes skyrocketed across the United States and Europe. By the early 1900s, these additives were being used in a wide variety of foods, including ketchup, mustard, jellies, and wine. This synthetic dye also became a popular choice used in drugs and cosmetics.

Pure Food and Drug Act

Because of the apparent popularity of food dyes in the late 19th century, authorities became more hands-on in monitoring and ensuring the safety of these additives. In 1881, the US Department of Agriculture started researching the effects of colors on food.

On June 30, 1906, the United States Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which is also known as the Wiley Act. This law was created in an effort to regulate the sale of food and drugs, as well as to prohibit the manufacture, sale, or transport of adulterated or misbranded products. One of the key provisions of this act was the requirement for food manufacturers to list all color additives used in their products. [4]

This law paved the way for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be established in 1927. The FDA is a federal agency responsible for protecting public health by ensuring the safety of food, drugs, cosmetics, and other products.

The FDA continued to enforce the Pure Food and Drug Act throughout the years. However, despite the various food laws and regulations that have been put in place, food colorings are still being used in a wide variety of products.

Modern Age

Hot dogs dressed in ketchup and mustard with fries and beer

Modern food dyes are mostly made from petroleum and crude oil. [5] Petroleum is also used to make plastics, detergents, and other chemicals.

These days, food manufacturers use dyes to make their products more appealing and attractive to consumers. For example, yellow 5 is often used in sports drinks and cereals to make them look more like lemonade or cornflakes.

In addition, food dyes are also used as a way to compensate for the loss of color in food that has been processed or stored for a long time. For instance, canned fruits and vegetables often have dull colors. To make them look more appealing, manufacturers would add dyes to these products.

Despite the fact that food dyes are widely used in the food industry, there is still no concrete evidence that these additives are completely safe. In fact, some studies have linked food dyes to a variety of health problems, such as cancer, allergies, ADHD, and behavioral problems in children.

How Much Food Coloring is Consumed Each Day?

Food dyes have gained worldwide popularity. In the United States alone, it is estimated that around 100 mg to 200 mg of synthetic dyes are consumed by children each day. This amount is equivalent to approximately 1/64 teaspoon or 0.4 grams.

A study by the Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI) shows that in 810 products marketed to children, 350 items contained food coloring; this is a whopping 43.2% of the total products analyzed.

In addition, 96.3% of the candies and 94% of the fruit-flavored snacks analyzed in the grocery store contain food coloring. [6]

Types of Food Dyes

Besides the different colors available, food dyes also vary in terms of form. The different types of food dyes are liquid, gel, powder, and natural. All of these food colorings serve a specific purpose when it comes to coloring food.

Liquid Food Color

Liquid food coloring in bottles

Liquid food color is one of the most common dyes you’ll see in the supermarket. This type of food coloring is typically used in cake mixes, frostings, beverages, and other preparations that require liquid form.

The advantages of using liquid food color are its price, availability, and simplicity. This type of food color is the cheapest and most convenient to use. You can simply mix it with water, batter, or other solutions to get the desired color.

However, keep in mind that liquid food color might not be your best option if you’re looking to have a dark or concentrated color. Although darker shades are possible to achieve, you would need to put a lot of liquid food dye before getting your desired result.

Gel Food Color

Gel food coloring

Unlike liquid food colors, gel types are more difficult to find in the market. Although not as popular as liquid food colors, gel food dyes are becoming more common in baking recipes. But they are relatively more expensive.

Gel food coloring is often used in fondant. This type of dye also has a richer color, making it easier to achieve your desired color in fewer drops. The disadvantage of gel food color is that it can be difficult to mix and might clump up if not used correctly.

Powder Food Color

Powdered food dyes

Powder food coloring is also a common type of dye that is used in baking. It is often used to color fondant, as well as to dust donut holes, cake pops, and other confections.

This type of food coloring is more concentrated than liquid and gel food dyes. As a result, it can be difficult to achieve lighter shades. In addition, powder food coloring can also be messy to work with.

Interestingly, powder food color serves a specific purpose when it comes to decorating cakes. When mixed with a little bit of water, it can create a paint-like consistency that can be used to create designs on cakes.

Natural Food Color

Turmeric powder in a wooden cup

Natural food coloring is a classic way of adding color to your food. But this option is not as popular as it was several years ago. This is because natural food coloring can be more expensive and difficult to find. In addition, it can also be less consistent in color.

Natural food coloring is made from plant extracts, fruits, and vegetables. Common natural food colorings include turmeric (yellow), beets (red), and spirulina (blue-green).

One of the advantages of using natural food coloring is that it is generally safe. But keep in mind that there are still some risks involved, especially if you’re allergic to a certain ingredient.

In addition, natural food coloring is a good option if you’re looking for color without any flavor. But keep in mind that some natural food coloring can add a slight flavor to your dish.

Food Dyes Approved by the FDA 

There are several food dyes approved by the FDA. Manufacturers use these additives in various food and drink products. Here are the food colorings approved by EFSA and FDA: [7]

  • Red No. 3 (Erythrosine): This food dye has a cherry-red appearance and is commonly used in candies, popsicles, and pastries.
  • Red No. 40 (Allura Red): Unlike Red 3, this food dye has a darker shade, which is commonly used in sports drinks, condiments, candies, and cereals.
  • Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine): Yellow 5 is a common food color found in different products, including candies, soft drinks, chips, cereals, and popcorn. It has a shade similar to a lemon.
  • Yellow No. 6 (Sunset Yellow): From the name itself, the sunset yellow has a color similar to a sunset. Its orange-yellow color gives life to candies, sauces, baked goods, and fruits.
  • Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue): Blue 1 has a greenish touch, which is commonly found in ice cream, canned peas, soups, popsicles, and icing.
  • Blue No. 2 (Indigo Carmine): This food dye has a darker shade, which is typically found in candies, ice cream, cereals, and various snacks.

These are the six food dyes approved by both the FDA and EFSA.

Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are the most popular food dyes used by manufacturers. Interestingly, 90% of all the food dyes used in the US consist of these colors.

Besides the six most common dyes, there are other colorings approved by either the FDA or EFSA, as well as in other countries. Fast Green is another popular option used in food in the US, but it is banned in Europe. On the other hand, Quinoline Yellow, Carmoisine, and Ponceau are banned in the US, but they are common food dyes used in European countries.

Different Uses of Food Dyes

Colorful candies

Food coloring is an incredibly large and important industry. Food dyes are used in a wide variety of applications, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food.

While it’s already no surprise that food dyes are commonly used in several products, you might be surprised to know that a lot of what we consume already has some form of food coloring. Everything from sports drinks to candy to salad dressing can have some form of food dye.

But what is the reason behind the massive popularity of food dyes? Well, there are actually several reasons.

Make Food More Attractive

Bright red tomatoes on a wooden cutting board

One of the main reasons why food dyes are used is to make food more attractive. A lot of people tend to eat with their eyes first, and food that looks good is often more appealing.

In addition, the color of the food also helps people identify its freshness. For example, people are more likely to buy tomatoes that are red instead of those that are starting to turn brown. [8]

And when it comes to food that is already dyed, people often associate certain colors with certain flavors. For example, green is often associated with mint, while blue is often associated with berries.

Enhance Food’s Color

Processed food often lacks color. This is because the manufacturing process can strip away a lot of the natural color of food. [9]

In order to make up for this, food manufacturers often add food dyes to their products to enhance the color. For example, many yogurts that are on the market are actually white. To make them look more appetizing, food manufacturers often add blueberry or strawberry flavoring, as well as a blue or pink food dye.

Helps Preserve Food Color

Preserved vegetables in jars

Another use of food dye is to preserve the food’s color. This is especially important for products that are going to be on the shelves for a long time.

For example, most pickles that you see in the supermarket are actually green. But over time, the pickles can start to turn yellow. In order to prevent this, manufacturers often add yellow food dye to pickles.

Make Food Easier to Identify

Various kinds of cheese on the table

Adding food dye for easier identification is one of the main uses of this additive. Food dye is often used to standardize the color of food so that people can easily identify it.

For example, if you’re looking for cheddar cheese, you’re expecting it to be orange. If it’s not orange, then it might be harder to identify.

In the same way, people often associate green peas with their color. If the peas are any other color, it might be harder to identify them.

Major Food Coloring Manufacturers

Food coloring is one of the largest and most important industries in the world. Industrial advancement around the globe leads to significant growth in demand for food dyes and colorants. The production and sale of synthetic food coloring is a multi-million dollar industry. [10]

Here are some of the leading manufacturers of synthetic food coloring:

CHR Hansen Holding A/S

Logo of CHR Hansen

CHR Hansen is a Denmark-based manufacturer of food coloring. The company was founded in 1874 and has since grown to become one of the leading producers of food coloring in the world.

The company offers a wide range of food colorants, including natural and synthetic options. Some of their most popular products include caramel color, carmine, and beta-carotene.

Revenue: €1.077 Billion ($1.070 Billion)

Archer Daniels Midland Company

Logo of Archer Daniels Midland

Archer Daniels Midland Company is an American company that manufactures food coloring. The company was founded in 1902 and is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. The company is known for distributing various food ingredients, including food coloring.

The company is known for catering to customers in 170 countries across the globe.

Revenue: $85 Billion

DSM (Dutch State Mines)

Logo of DSM

DSM (Dutch State Mines) is a large multinational corporation based in the Netherlands. The company was founded in 1902 and is today one of the world’s leading manufacturers of food coloring.

The company offers a wide range of food colorants, including natural and synthetic options for food, beverage, and dietary supplement.

Revenue: €9.267 Billion ($9.233 Billion)

DowDuPont

Logo of DuPont

DowDuPont was founded in 1897 and is based in Wilmington, Delaware. The company is a major manufacturer of various chemicals, including food colorants. Besides manufacturing food chemicals, it also has a research & development wing that is constantly innovating new products.

Revenue: $20.4 Billion

Dohler Group

Dohler Group is one of the oldest manufacturers of food coloring. The company was founded in 1838 and is headquartered in Darmstadt, Germany. The company focuses on producing, marketing, and supplying various food products, including food colorants.

The company is today one of the leading manufacturers of food coloring, with a wide range of products that cater to different industries.

Revenue: $2 Billion [11]

Sensient Technologies Corporation

Logo of Sensient Technologies

Sensient Technologies Corporation is an American company that manufactures food coloring. The company was founded in 1882 and is today one of the leading producers of food colorants.

The company offers a wide range of food colorants, including natural and synthetic options. Besides food colorants, This company also produce food flavors and fragrance.

Revenue: $1.4 Billion

The Volume of Food Color Sales 

Food colorants are one of the most popular additives in the world, and their global sales are reaching new heights every year.

The demand for food coloring is undoubtedly at its peak, and tons of this additive is being consumed each year – with carbonated soft drinks being one of the leading contributors to its market sales. [12]

Here’s a table of the global food market study:

Global Food Colors Market Study 2021-2022

Global Market Value USD2.6 Billion
CAGR 7.3%
Global Consumption by Volume 185,000 metric tons
Beverage Segment Market Share 22%
Food Color Consumption in Soft Drinks 8,000 metric tons

Moreover, FMI analysis shows that the demand for food coloring will continue to increase in the future, with its market value and global consumption reaching new heights.

FMI Market Analysis

Projected Market Value USD5.3 Billion 2032
Projected Global Consumption 340,000 metric tons 2030

Concerns in Food Coloring

A woman suffering from stomachache

Despite the popularity and global demand for food coloring, there are several concerns associated with it.

The most common concern is the potential health risks of consuming food coloring. Some food colorings have been linked to cancer, ADHD, and other health problems.

Another concern is the environmental impact of food coloring. Many food colorings are made from petroleum and other harmful chemicals. These chemicals can pollute the environment and potentially harm wildlife.

Food Dyes for Kids

Artificial food coloring is commonly linked with increased ADHD in children. Scientists have continued to study the effects of food coloring on children’s health for more than thirty years as this additive is usually believed to cause ADHD. But years of research show no conclusive evidence that food dyes cause ADHD.

However, consuming food coloring shows an adverse effect on behavior. A study done in the UK found that a mix of food dyes and the preservative sodium benzoate led to hyperactivity in three-year-olds, eight-year-olds, and nine-year-olds.

While there is no conclusive evidence that food coloring causes ADHD, the studies suggest that certain food colorings may have an adverse effect on behavior. [13]

Allergic Reactions

Sick female with allergy

Besides adverse behavioral effects, the consumption of food dyes also causes allergic reactions. Allergic reactions to food dyes are not common and are not life-threatening.

The most common allergic reaction to food dyes is skin irritation. Other reactions include hives, itching, and swelling. Asthma symptoms may also be triggered by food dyes, especially Yellow 5 or tartrazine.

If you experience any allergic reaction after consuming food coloring, it is important to seek medical attention immediately.

Cancer-Causing Claims

A lavender ribbon in the doctor’s hand

The most alarming concern associated with food coloring consumption is the cancer risk. Some food colorings have been linked to cancer in humans, mainly Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. These colorants are known to contain cancer-causing substances, such as benzidine and other carcinogens.

Furthermore, it is concluded that Red 3 and many other food dyes cause cancer in animals. But the FDA has not yet banned these food colorings as the evidence of their cancer-causing effects in humans is inconclusive. [14]

Contamination of Water Resources

Water pollution in the river

Food dye discharge is one of the major causes of water contamination. It’s been estimated that 15% of the total food coloring produced worldwide is discharged into water resources. This improper discharge of food dyes significantly contributes to decreased oxygen levels in water bodies, which is harmful to aquatic life. [15]

It’s important to note that food coloring products are not biodegradable, and thus, their discharge into water resources can cause long-term environmental damage.

Final Thoughts

Food coloring is a popular and widely used additive in the food industry. This food additive is a massive industry around the world, and its global demand is growing at a rapid pace.

However, there are several concerns associated with it, including potential health risks, environmental impact, and allergic reactions. Some food colorings have even been linked to cancer. While further research is needed to determine the full extent of these risks, consumers should be aware of the potential dangers of consuming food coloring.

References

[1] Coloring, Food. Encyclopedia. https://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/coloring-food

[2] The history of food colour additives. SafeFood. https://www.safefood.net/food-colours/history

[3] Color Additives History. FDA. https://www.fda.gov/industry/color-additives/color-additives-history#:~:text=In%201856%2C%20William%20Henry%20Perkin,%22coal%2Dtar%20colors.%22

[4] Pure Food And Drug Act. Encyclopedia. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/united-states-and-canada/us-history/food-and-drug-act-1906

[5] Eating with Your Eyes: The Chemistry of Food Colorings. ACS. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/2015-2016/october-2015/food-colorings.html#:~:text=Artificial%20food%20colorings%20were%20originally,from%20petroleum%2C%20or%20crude%20oil.

[6] Synthetic Dyes: This Is How Much Kids Are Consuming. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2019/09/24/synthetic-dyes-this-is-how-much-kids-are-consuming/?sh=622ea6844383

[7] Food Dyes: Harmless of Harmful? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/food-dyes#TOC_TITLE_HDR_6

[8] Why Use Colors? IACM. https://iacmcolor.org/why-use-colors/

[9] Application of food color and bio-preservatives in the food and its effect on the human health. Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2772753X2200003X

[10] Top 10 Companies in Food Colors Market. Meticulous Blog. https://meticulousblog.org/top-10-companies-in-food-colors-market/

[11] Dohler. ZoomInfo. https://www.zoominfo.com/c/dohler-gmbh/69390961

[12] Food Colors Market Size Worth 5.3 Billion by 2032 at 7.3% CAGR – Future Market Insights, Inc. PR Newswire. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/food-colors-market-size-worth-usd-5-3-billion-by-2032-at-7-3-cagr—future-market-insights-inc-301557952.html#:~:text=FMI%20analysis%20displays%20that%20food,340%2C000%20metric%20tons%20by%202030

[13] Food Dye and ADHD. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/childhood-adhd/food-dye-adhd#:~:text=To%20date%2C%20no%20conclusive%20evidence,%2C%20environmental%20factors%2C%20and%20heredity.

[14] Toxicology of food dyes. PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23026007/

[15] Contamination of Water Resources by Food Dyes and Its Removal Technologies. IntechOpen. https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/70455