Bugs, anyone? 

By Tim Nelson
July 21, 2021
Advertisement

Earlier in 2020, a team of researchers at UC Davis discovered a new way to produce a natural blue food dye. Finding a good natural source of blue was no easy feat, given how difficult the color is to reproduce without relying on synthetic sources. 

That development may have gotten you wondering about various food colorings and where they come from. As it turns out, there are a variety of natural sources, though only a few artificial options — which nonetheless are pretty popular. Here's a closer look at all things food coloring. 

Food Coloring Is Big Business

In fact, the value of the overall food coloring market is estimated to hit $4.3 billion in 2021, and grow to $5.4 billion in 2026. When you think about what the world of food might be without it, those eye-popping numbers start to make a little bit more sense: Crystal Pepsi's failure already shows the world isn't ready for colorless sodas, and nobody wants to get gray Cheeto dust on their fingers.

The power of food coloring is evident far beyond Frito-Lay's brand portfolio. We eat with our eyes, and the colors we see can form impressions about the food in front of us that can override our own taste buds. Or, to paraphrase a food chemist who once spoke to the New York Times on the subject, "color creates a psychological expectation for a certain flavor that is often impossible to dislodge." 

How the FDA Looks at Food Coloring

Now that you've got a sense of how important food coloring is to what we eat (assuming you're not grabbing everything in your kitchen from the farmer's market), it's worth investigating what it is and where it's derived from. 

Broadly speaking, food "color additives" can be broken into two broad categories: natural and artificial. In terms of how the FDA, who is tasked with regulating color additives per the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, sees it, that translates to color additives that are subject to (artificial) or exempt from (natural) a process of "batch certification" to make sure a product is good to go for use in food. Pigments from natural sources get a pass from the enhanced scrutiny, which is just one reason why they might be preferable to some. 

What's in Natural Food Coloring?

In total, the FDA lists 28 different batch certification-exempt color additives, derived from natural sources. Some of these food colorings may already be familiar to you, even if you didn't know they were used to color foods. Those include dehydrated beets, caramel, fruit and vegetable juice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, spices like paprika, saffron, and turmeric are also approved for use as natural food colorings. 

There are some crazier-sounding natural food colors that are worth delving into. Among them is beta carotene, part of the carotenoid family known for its red, yellow, and orange hues. As a fat-soluble color additive, beta carotene is often used to give margarine, cheese, and other fatty dairy an extra pop of color. If you can't believe it's not butter, the beta-carotene may play some kind of role. Riboflavin, familiar to anyone who takes a multivitamin, can also be used to give foods a yellow color. 

If you remember anything about photosynthesis from biology class, you'll be delighted to know that this common plant pigment helps to green up a lot of different foods. Though chlorophyll is present in the majority of plants, chlorophyll sourced for use as a food dye is most often extracted from alfalfa. 

Other seeds and extracts can form food dyes as well. Those include annatto extract, derived from the seeds of an achiote tree. Tomato lycopene extract also makes the list, as do grape color and grape skin extracts. 

What might make your skin crawl, though, is Carmine. No, this natural food coloring isn't a nice Italian man who tours the country to turn foods red. It's actually a bright red pigment made from carminic acid, which comes from crushing up a whole lot of cochineal bugs. 

Though this stable, and long-lasting dye is used to non-toxically add a touch of red or pink to yogurts, ice creams, and more, it's obviously not without some detractors who'd rather not eat bugs. Starbucks, for example, switched away from a carmine-based additive for its strawberry-flavored menu items in response to a critical mass of concerned customers. 

Blue coloring in water
Credit: James Griffiths Photography via Getty Images

What's in Artificial Food Coloring?

Given an abstract choice between "natural" and "artificial" food products, going natural is the obvious choice, right? Maybe, but it turns out there are valid reasons why artificial food colorings haven't been phased out completely. In addition to the ability to create a rainbow of colors free from nature's constraints, artificial food colorings can tend to be a bit more shelf-stable or longer-lasting than colors made from natural compounds. From a business point of view, they're also cheaper to manufacture. 

The one catch? They're often derived from petroleum. 

Wait, Really?

Yes, but that's why the FDA goes through a relatively rigorous process to make sure everything's looking good before these chemical compounds can color food fit for human consumption. Per the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act ("FD&C" Act) tasks the FDA with approving color additives for consumption. Artificial color additives undergo a process of "batch certification" to make sure everything meets the FDA's specifications. On the other hand, "pigments from natural sources"  that are approved by the FDA for use in food are exempt from this batch certification process. 

Currently, the FDA's list includes a variety of "FD&C" color formulas, including Blues Nos. 1 and 2, Green No. 3 , Red Nos. 3 and 40, Yellow Nos. 5 and 6. All of these are essentially a combination of carbon, hydrogen, sodium, oxygen, and sulfur molecules, though Red No. 3 (which is used to form a pinkish hue) contains iodine as well. 

Additionally, there are two color additives with more specific use cases: Citrus Red Number 2 for "skins of oranges not intended or used for processing," and Orange B, for the "casings or surfaces of frankfurters and sausages."

Why Are There Multiple Formations of the Same Color?

Because all of these artificial food colors are the product of better living through chemistry, each has its own particular combination of elements from the periodic table. For example, Blue No. 1 is C37H34N2Na2O9S3 , while Blue No. 2 has a different chain of molecules: C16H8N2Na2O8S2.

Subsequently, these different molecular formulas translate to different shades of the same color"  i.e. Blue No. 1's "Brilliant Blue" vs Blue No. 2's "Indigotine." These two blues also have different use cases as well, based on the FDA's info. For example, the FDA says FD&C Blue No.1 is used in "confections, beverages, cereals, frozen dairy desserts, popsicles, frostings & icings," whereas FD&C Blue No.2 can be applied to "baked goods, cereals, snack foods, ice cream, confections, and yogurt." 

Is Artificial Food Coloring Safe?

Artificial dyes aren't without their controversy, and some regard them with skepticism. That can feel especially valid given that, as the American Chemical Society points out, today's artificial food colorings are derived from petroleum. Of course, part of the FDA certification process centers on ensuring there aren't any traces of the original petroleum left by the time a dye is finished. 

Over the years, there have also been some studies which observed a supposed correlation between artificial food dyes and the incidence of ADHD in children, and others positing a link between these dyes and obesity, and others linking them to carcinogens. For whatever it's worth to you, the FDA's list of seven approved artificial food colorings are "safe when they are used in accordance with FDA regulations" as things currently stand. Any color additives that haven't met with their approval can't legally be used in foods sold to consumers. 

So if you'd rather opt for more natural food colorings these days, there are certainly plenty of brands willing to cater to your desires. Just know that it might mean eating some bugs instead. 

Related:

This story originally appeared on allrecipes.com