DEAR DR. BLONZ: Processed foods, even some that brag about their "all natural" ingredients, often choose to add food coloring. Where do natural and artificial food colorings come from? What does "FD&C" stand for when used to describe a color on the label? How concerned should I be over the safety of food coloring? -- B.B., Los Angeles
DEAR B.B.: The use of food colors is controversial because their purpose is to change the appearance of a food into one that is more acceptable to the consumer. It's nothing new, as archaeologists have identified the use of cosmetic colors dating back as far as 5,000 B.C. Research has shown that if the colors of a food look wrong, people have difficulty detecting specific tastes. One classic study, for example, demonstrated that some volunteers couldn't correctly identify strawberry flavoring when it was tinted green. And in a classic 1970s experiment, volunteers were fed a meal of steaks, peas and french fries under lighting conditions that masked their appearance. A number of volunteers became ill when the lights were raised at the end of the meal to reveal a blue steak, red peas, and green French fries.
One rationale for the use of colors in processed foods is that natural color compounds tend to be destroyed during processing. When used as additives, however, natural colors are rarely "natural" to the food in which they're used. Rather, they are color-rich chemicals that come from animal, vegetable or mineral sources, and this is what allows them to be called "natural." Artificial colors, by contrast, tend to be made from petroleum-based substances.
The components of natural red food coloring, for example, can be extracted from beets, but it also can come from carmine, a crimson pigment from the shell of a Central American insect. Both are considered "natural" red colors, and they're used in everything from fruit drinks to candy to strawberry ice cream.
If a color comes from a natural source, it is exempt from certification. By contrast, every batch of an artificial color must be certified safe by the Food and Drug Administration before it can be used. The FD&C in the name of an artificial color stands for the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the 1938 legislation that gave the government the authority to regulate the dyes used in foods, drugs and cosmetics. The artificial colors used in foods are identified by number and appear on the ingredient statement as, for example, "FD&C Blue #2." A complete list of FD&C colors can be found at tinyurl.com/oenz94w.
The safety issue is complicated. In general, food colors have a good safety record, but over the years a few "numbers" have been taken off the market when they were found to cause cancer in animal experiments. Keep in mind that unrealistically large amounts of the chemical are often used to provoke cancer in these experiments, while only minuscule amounts of colors are ever used in foods. Other issues include an ongoing debate about an association between artificial colors and hyperactivity in children.
The big picture here is that color additives don't provide any health value to a food, the main mission being to make a processed food appear more natural or wholesome. There is no real basis to recommend them. The fact that you don't find food color additives in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and grains, speaks volumes.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.