Artificial food coloring can enhance the flavor experience of some foods, but it often contains unhealthy ingredients in the form of industrially produced chemicals.
It may be more difficult than you think to completely cut out artificial coloring from your diet, but the first step in staying healthy is being informed about the contents of your food. Herewith, five things you never knew about artificial food coloring.
1. It plays a surprising role in taste and palatability. According to a 2011 article in the New York Times, artificial food coloring often influences flavor to the degree that taste test subjects can’t identify cheese flavoring in crunchy cheese snacks if the snacks aren’t recognizably dyed (Harris, 2011). Without commercial food dye, most taste testers can’t distinguish vanilla pudding from banana or lemon, and are actually more likely to claim flavor experiences that match the food dye, rather the actual flavor of the pudding.
Without artificial food coloring, a surprising number of the foods around us would radically change, in ways that have little effect on their nutritional composition but a strong effect on our desire to eat them. Pickles would not be green, all flavors of JELL-O® would be tan and most of the brightly colored-snacks we know and love (like cheese doodles, popsicles and gummy bears) would become a bland shade of grey. Want a plate of beige JELL-O®? We didn’t think so.
2. It can be made of some pretty weird things. Most of the food color shades used today, including yellow #5 and red food coloring #3, were approved by the FDA in 1931. Back then, dyes were made of coal tar. Modern artificial dyes are usually made of petroleum. Some artificial red food coloring, also called carmine or carminic acid, is made from crushed beetles. Carminic acid is widely used to color candies and cereal.
3. We’ve been using it for a long time. Medieval European records and even writings from ancient Egypt suggest that there’s nothing new about coloring foods to make them appear more appetizing to diners. Evidence suggests that food colorants, occasionally toxic ones, have often been added to food from meat to pickles to hide spoilage or simply make things more pleasant to eat. During the reign of the English King Edward in the 1300s, any baker found to be adding chalk to bread to whiten it was to be “put upon a pillory and remain there at least one hour during the day” (Burrows, 2006).
4. It may have complex effects on our health. Since 1931 and the FDA approval of most modern food dye colors, several of these once-approved dyes have been proven toxic and consequently banned. In 1970, an allergist in California conducted a study in which he successfully reduced hyperactivity in children by removing artificial food color from their diets. As a result of studies like these and the proven dangers of some orange and red food coloring, rumors have circulated for years about links between food coloring and health problems.
To begin unraveling the mystery, a recent study was published by the journal “Lancet” in which children with hyperactivity and ADHD symptoms were placed on restrictive diets in order to see if food had any effect on symptom control (NPR, 2011). The children’s response to the restrictive diet was so strong that several follow-up studies are now being conducted to determine, once and for all, if artificial food coloring, especially red food coloring, can be directly linked to hyperactivity and behavioral problems.
Artificial colorings like yellow #5 and red #3 can cause allergic reactions in some people, especially those who are sensitive to aspirin. But natural dyes, which are often made from grape skin extract and beet juice (red) or annatto seeds (yellow) are not linked to any known health problems.
5. Despite all this, we still insist on artificially colored foods. Butter is white, and in the early 1900s, the dairy industry lobbied to have manufactured oil products like margarine dyed yellow in order to distinguish them from the “real deal.” But margarine caught on, and so did yellow. Now we love the idea of yellow butter so much that we insist on it. Many producers pour dye into real butter, and baby boomers can often remember mixing yellow dye into butter at home before spreading it on toast. Color has become a vital part of the pleasure we derive from eating, and as with so many other things in life, what’s best for us isn’t always what we want.