Is Artificial Food Coloring on the Way Out?

Natural food dyes are replacing artificial food dyes (Source:  By Skoot13 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
Natural food dyes are replacing artificial food dyes (Source: By Skoot13 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
You may have heard the news. Some manufacturers of processed foods have had a change of heart on artificial food coloring.  In the latest move, General Mills is switching to natural food coloring in it’s cereals.  Will the public accept the new colors?  If so, are we seeing the end of artificial food coloring?

For decades, these concocted colors have been added to everything from cereal to mixed vegetables to fresh produce.  They’ve been used to make food seems more vibrant, to hide blemishes, and to give the impression that ingredients not in the recipe really are included.  Even the fruit we buy fresh can be doctored to make it more appealing.  You thought that orange peel was really that orange, didn’t you?

There has always been controversy surrounding these colorants. Many have been linked to health problems.  In 1950, the FDA noted that children became sick after eating candy using an artificial dye.  Over the years, the list has grown for artificial color additives that have caused adverse reactions.  In 1990, Red Dye No. 3 in high doses was linked to cancer in laboratory animals.

Several dyes have been banned because they cause adverse health problems.

These are some of them:

  • Red Nos 1, 2, 4, and 32
  • Orange Nos 1 and 2
  • Yellow 1, 2, 3, and 4
  • Butter Yellow
  • Green No. 1 and 2
  • Violet 1
  • Sudan 1

Red No. 3 and Yellow No. 5 are known carcinogens.

(Source: The Nutrition Bible.)

I don’t know about you, but I never thought we’d be rid of artificial food coloring. While not all artificial food colorants cause health issues, there is a cultural shift in the United States on their use.  In recent years, public opinion on artificial coloring has become more negative.  People want processed food to be more natural (if that is possible.)

Artificial food coloring used to make oranges more appealing
Chemical makeup of Citrus Red No. 2 used to color orange peels (Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain)

Food manufacturers are listening. There is a shift to using real coloring, real flavoring instead of mimicking them in the kitchen laboratory. For instance, Starbucks recently announced that it’s Pumpkin Spice Latte will be reformulated without the caramel coloring and artificial flavoring.  They’re going to use real pumpkin.  (What a concept!)  As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, General Mills will remove all artificial coloring and flavors from its cereals by end of 2016.

It hasn’t been easy for companies to find replacements.  There has been a lot of experimentation using everything from produce to spices with mixed results.  The new food colorants haven’t yielded the variety of colors nor the vibrancy and some colors have been difficult to mimic.  Companies are concerned that Americans will reject the newly formulated but less bright colored food.   Time will only tell if the public will continue to buy the same products in different hues.

Several of the food colorants now approved by the FDA are from natural derivatives.  Fruits, vegetables, and spices like paprika can create some of the colors we’re used to seeing.  It’s just that it was easier and more cost effective to get the colors they wanted with artificial dyes.

Smarties from Great Britain have used natural dye since 2008
Smarties candies from Great Britain have been made from natural dye since 2008 (bottom row). Does the color difference matter? (Source: By John Penton (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
Let’s face it.  We’re all not going to stop eating processed food tomorrow. Even the healthiest eaters among us must fix a box or bag of something every now and then.  Convenience wins out sometimes.

I applaud manufacturers for making the effort.  Replacing artificial food coloring is a move in the right direction. Maybe some day we’ll be able to eat food that hasn’t been colored for visual appeal, especially those served in their natural form. Until then, one less unnecessary ingredient in that box of rice pilaf will be very much appreciated.

Want to learn more about food additives?  This dictionary provides comprehensive information on food additives–the good, the bad, and the in between.


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Sources:

1.  F.D.A. Limits Red Dye No. 3.  Associated Press.  Published 30 Jan 1990.  http://www.nytimes.com/1990/01/30/science/fda-limits-red-dye-no-3.html

2.  Popular Foods Taking On New Hues without Artificial Dyes.  Candace Choi.  Associated Press.  20 Aug 2015.  http://www.detroitnews.com/story/business/2015/08/20/popular-foods-new-hues-without-artificial-dyes/32073883/

3.  Remember, Your Pumpkin Spice Latte is More Pumpkin-y.  Jackie Watties.  CNN 8 Sep 2015.  http://www.reviewjournal.com/life/food-and-dining/the-dish/remember-your-pumpkin-spice-latte-more-pumpkin-y-now

4. General Mills to Remove Artificial Colors, Flavors from Cereals.  FoxNews. 22 Jun 2015.  http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2015/06/22/general-mills-to-artificial-flavors-color-from-cereals/

5. The Nutrition Bible: The Comprehensive, No-Nonsense Guide To Foods, Nutrients, Additives, Preservatives, Pollutants And E 1997 : William Morrow Cookbooks.


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4 thoughts on “Is Artificial Food Coloring on the Way Out?”

  1. I was so thankful when I saw the newscast on General Mills. Kraft Maccaroni is also removing their dyes as well. It really is about time we get a little healthier in our processed foods : )

    1. Lorelei, I so agree! There are things in these foods that just don’t need to be there. I’ve always felt the less additives, the less things people can become sensitive to.

  2. It will be a real relief if/when they do get rid of these food colors. I think we’d all be surprised how many places they’re used. The line that really struck me was, “People want processed food to be more natural.” It’s true, in its very ironic way. We want the convenience of processed foods and yet we still want to somehow feel good about it. Even as we make progress like this – switching to natural dyes – other companies continue to offer more processed, less “real” options. As consumers, it gets harder and harder to eat well. Thanks for this informative article about food colorings!

    1. Monica, I agree with you. I was surprised a few years back when I learned that companies doctor produce so it looks more appealing. You’d think an orange is an orange, but even that can have coloring added so we think it looks better. Convenience comes at a price. While I applaud the moves by companies to come up with healthier options, there are many processed foods that are really just imitations of the real thing. It does feel like a shift is happening and maybe that will put pressure on other companies.

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