What Are Artificial Colorings?

Artificial food colorings enhance the color of breakfast cereals.
Stefanie Sansotetra / EyeEm / Getty Images

Most processed foods would have a dull appearance if it weren't for the food colorings that are added during the manufacturing process. Imagine beige cheese poofs instead of neon-bright orange ones.

Food manufacturers like to enhance the colors of processed foods with food colorings. Some colorings are made from extracts of plants and other natural substances, but many colors are created artificially. 

Artificial colorings are also called certified colors because they need to be approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These man-made coloring agents are cheaper and more efficient for adding color compared to their natural counterparts that are derived from fruits, vegetables, and minerals.

There are two types of certified color additives called dyes or lakes:

Dyes dissolve in water and are usually used as powders, granules, or liquids. They're commonly used in beverages, baked goods, confections and dairy products.

Lakes do not dissolve in water, and are more stable than dyes, so they are used for coloring food products contain fats and oils, or in products that contain no moisture at all, such as cake mixes, hard candies, and chewing gum.

You'll find these certified color additives when you look on food labels:

  • FD&C Blue Nos. 1 and 2
  • FD&C Green No. 3
  • FD&C Red Nos. 3 and 40
  • FD&C Yellow Nos. 5 and 6
  • Orange B
  • Citrus Red No. 2

Safety and Certification

The FDA considers several factors before allowing artificial colors to be certified, such as the composition of the substance; the amount that would be typically used in a product; the amount usually consumed; and any healthy effects and safety factors.

The artificial colors that make it into the foods you eat should be safe. There have been claims made that kids who consume foods with artificial colorings are more likely to have behavioral problems. That's possible, but to be honest, most of the studies that found such associations are pretty weak. Certain red dyes were found to cause cancer in lab rats and were subsequently banned. 

Artificial colors must be listed in the ingredients list on the Nutrition Facts label, but since they're considered safe, no other warning or additional labeling is required.

But I Don't Want Them in My Food

Although artificial colorings are safe to consume, I know that many people would prefer to avoid them. Which is fine, because you don't need them. I mean, I know you're probably used to seeing processed foods with vivid colorings, but avoiding them doesn't mean you have to eat dull-looking food.

Colors such as annatto extract (yellow), dehydrated beets (bluish-red to brown), caramel (yellow to tan), beta-carotene (yellow to orange) and grape skin extract (red, green) all add color without adding artificial chemicals. These tend to be more expensive than the artificial colorings, so they're not typically used to color cheaply processed foods. Or you can skip the heavily processed foods altogether and stick to whole foods such as fruits and vegetables that are naturally colorful and better for your health, as well.

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