When it comes to American cuisine, one flavorless element has dominated ingredient lists for decades—food coloring. The dyes are commonplace in the United States, but that's not the case for the rest of the world. Many countries rarely put these unnecessary additives in their food, and some have even banned or restricted their use, so how did these potentially harmful ingredients become so ubiquitous in America?
In a probing piece on Slate, gastroenterologist Shilpa Ravella examines the history of food coloring and why, as a nation, we've come to rely so heavily on the artificial stuff to give our food aesthetic appeal. The chemicals better known as Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, and Blue No. 1—all of which are frequently used to amp up the yellow in our French fries or the red in our strawberry-flavored desserts—"are the culinary equivalents of lipstick and mascara, and they are often made from the same pigments," Ravella writes.
These chemicals first appeared in the mid-19th century, when large companies discovered artificial, chemically-created dyes were cheaper and more vibrant than the natural stuff. Prior to this time, the majority of coloring was created from plant, animal, and mineral products—however, after the artificial tones proved to make their products more popular with consumers, manufacturers made the big switch, changing American food forever.