It's everywhere in American packaged food.

By Gillie Houston
Updated May 24, 2017

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.

In recent years, many scientists and studies have posed the idea that these artificial dyes could potentially have serious health effects. One recent study, published in the Lancet medical journal found that food additives—including the common dyes—were linked to increased hyperactivity in children. Other studies have linked artificial dyes to more menacing health consequences in animals, including cancer, birth defects, and organ damage.

As a result of the hyperactivity study, the European Parliament passed a law in 2010 that banned the use of food dyes in products for infants and children, and required labels be put on all foods warning of the presence of artificial food coloring. During the same period, the American Food and Drug Administration rejected the idea that the dyes were definitively connected to any health consequences, saying that more data was needed.

Due to the FDA's "Generally Recognized as Safe" policy, which is a label liberally given to all ingredients not proven to cause harm to health—trans fats were labeled GRAS until 2015—there is little that can be done in terms of regulation to prevent the prominent use of artificial food coloring.

But why even bother with artificial food coloring, which may lead to health issues and adds no layer of nutrition or flavor to food? Evolution. "Man has adapted to appreciate natural colors, including a variety of green, red, pink, orange, yellow, and purple produce: Colors signal that food is ripe or that it contains healthy compounds," Ravella writes. "Because of that evolutionary background, color is money for food manufacturers." People, and children in particular, are drawn to vibrant foods, and those who manufacture this food are well aware of that. That's where food coloring comes in—if our eyes make our culinary decisions first, foods that are more vibrant in tone are sure to be a consumer's first choice. In fact, some studies have found that the color of food can even effect the way we perceive the taste—even if all of the ingredients are exactly the same.

Until there is regulation of artificial dyes, chances are they aren't going away any time soon. But the next time you're ordering fries from the drive-thru, you might think twice about what gave them that bright yellow hue.