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Colorant Food Additives; Definition, Types and Effects on Health

Color is one of the most important parameters affecting the consumer’s purchase of food. Both the preservation of the existing color and the coloring of the food in a way that does not exist but increases the attractiveness of the food are very common applications in the food industry.

Detailed information on the protection of color is given under the title of preservative food additives (see Preservative Food Additives). For this purpose, some preservative food additives are used.

Coloring food is a different matter from preserving color. Food colorants are used for coloring foods in the food industry.

Some foods may not offer a very attractive appearance to the consumer in their natural state. The most obvious example of this situation is lemon foods. Whether it is lemonade or lemon ice cream, they do not have the distinctive bright yellow color of lemons in their natural state.

The consumer may be mistaken that these products do not contain lemon or contain very little lemon. Consumers can expect these foods to be bright yellow like lemons.

This being the case, the manufacturer, “Why don’t we color these products and make them more yellow?” says. Thus, to respond to consumer perception, a coloring additive is added to the natural product and the appeal of the product is increased.

A similar situation is more evident in butter. As it is known, butter in its natural state is more yellow in summer than in winter. The reason for this is that animals are fed with green grass in the summer and therefore the β carotene [1] contained in these green grasses is also transferred to milk fat.

In winter, animals cannot get β-carotene from the feed because they are fed with dry grass and the butter produced in the winter months is closer to white.

As a result, the color of butter naturally fluctuates throughout the year. In fact, some consumers know this situation and take it naturally. However, since a significant portion of consumers is not aware of this situation, they may perceive this color fluctuation as unnatural or cheating.

On the other hand, the consumer always expects the same quality product from a brand. This color fluctuation that the product will show throughout the year can also awaken the idea that the quality of that brand has decreased in the consumer.

On the other hand, the yellow color in butter creates a very effective perception of “quality” [2].

As a result, manufacturers often add β-carotene as a coloring additive to their butter, both to prevent color fluctuation and to create the perception that their products are of higher quality.

Colors are divided into two classes. Colorants obtained from plants, animals and minerals are classified as “natural colorants” and are not subject to any certification process. The other class is mostly petroleum-based substances called “synthetic colorants”.

Synthetic colors are divided into dyes and lakes. It can be said that while dyes are used to color the entire food, lakes are used to color the food surface. Lakes are obtained by reacting paints with aluminum hydroxide.

In general, they contain between 10-40% dye. They are insoluble in water and organic solvent. Lakes are frequently used for coloring dry and oily food surfaces.

While natural colorants are not subject to any certification, synthetic colorants must be certified to be used in foods. The common features of colorants are that they are easily soluble in water.

Synthetic colorants have significant advantages over natural colorants such as being relatively inexpensive and having a wider color range.

On the other hand, natural colorants may have undesirable properties such as changing the taste of the food they are added to and creating an undesirable taste.

However, as research on synthetic colors is made, it has been understood that some synthetic colors may have a toxic effect.

Natural food colorants

Beta-carotene (E 160a)YellowCarrot
Caramel (E 150a)BrownCaramelizing sugar with heat
Capsanthin (E 160c)Red – OrangePaprika
Betanin (E 162)RedBeetroot
Curcumin (E 100)YellowTurmeric
Canthaxanthin (E 161g)RedMushroom
Carmine (E 120)RedDried and powdered Cochineal insect
Bixin (E 160bi and ii)Yellow – OrangeAnnatto

Synthetic food colorants

Erythrosine (E 127 or FD&C red no. 3)PinkDisodium salt of 2,4,5,7-tetraiodofluorescein, petroleum derivative
Brillant blue FCF (E 133 or FD&C blue no. 1)BlueCondensation of 2-formylbenzenesulfonic acid and the appropriate aniline followed by oxidation
Indigo carmine (E 132 or FD&C blue no. 2)BlueCoal tar
Sunset Yellow FCF (E 110 or FD&C yellow no. 6)Orange – YellowDisodium salt of 2,4,5,7-tetraiodofluorescein, petroleum derivative
Allura red (E129 or FD&C red no. 40)RedAn azo coupling reaction of diazotized 5-amino-4-methoxy-2-toluenesulfonic acid with 6-hydroxy-2-naphthalene sulfonic acid
Chocolate brown HT (E 155)BrownCoal tar
Tartrazine (E 102 or FD&C yellow no. 5)YellowThe sulfanilic acid is diazotized and the diazonium salt binds to the pyrazolone compound.
Green S (E 142)GreenCoal tar
Brown FK (E 154)BrownBrown mixture of six synthetic azo dyes with the addition of sodium chloride and/or sodium sulfate
Amaranth (E 123)RedCoal tar, a petroleum derivative

Effects of Food Colorants on Health

For the last 50 years, scientific debates have been continuing on some synthetic colorants. In this context, each country makes its legal regulations. Therefore, the use of some synthetic colorants is allowed in some countries, while in others it is prohibited or limited.

For example, Green S is prohibited for use as a food additive in Canada, the United States, Japan and Norway. It is approved for use as a food additive in EU countries, Australia and New Zealand.

Similarly, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) from the United Kingdom reports that it is funding research into possible links between food colors and hyperactivity in children and that the consumption of certain synthetic foodstuffs may lead to increased hyperactivity in some children.

These synthetic colorants are; Sunset Yellow FCF (E 110), Quinoline yellow (E 104), Carmoisine (E 122), Allura red (E 129), Tartrazine (E102) and Ponceau 4R (E 124). According to the FSA, foods and beverages containing any of these six colors should have a warning on their packaging that says ‘May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States and the European Food Safety Authority independently reviewed the results of this study and both institutions declared that they concluded that the study did not prove a link between the color additives tested and behavioral effects.

The FDA’s Committee on Hypersensitivity to Food Ingredients reported in 1986 that it concluded that Tartrazine (E 102) may cause urticaria in less than 1 in 10,000 people. He also stated that it was concluded that there is no evidence that tartrazine in food triggers asthma attacks.

In May 2021, a scientific opinion was published by the European Food Safety Authority concluding that Titanium dioxide (E 171) may no longer be considered a safe food additive.

As a result, there is serious debate about the health effects of synthetic colorants. As a consumer, it would be a more logical way to be aware of why these substances are used and to turn to natural ones.

[1] β Carotene is one of the main molecules that gives butter its yellow color. Others are vitamins A and E.

[2] The perception of consumers that “the more yellow the butter is, the better quality” stems from the impression that animals are fed in open areas and green pastures. However, the degree of this yellow also differs from region to region. For example, butter produced in the Eastern Black Sea region (Turkiye) is the butter with the yellowest color. Even if the animals in other regions are fed on green pastures, it is very difficult for the butter produced to reach this color. In our study on butter produced in Trabzon (Turkiye), we revealed that Trabzon butter is the most yellow-colored butter in the world, and this was recorded in the literature.

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