Coloring, Food

views updated


COLORING, FOOD. Humans have always used the color of a food to form judgments about its desirability. The act of eating (and deciding what to eat) is a multi-sensory experience, synthesizing perceptions of sight, taste, smell, and touch. Color provides visual information about a food's quality and condition, and influences the perception of its flavor.

In nature, color is determined by a food's inherent qualities, indicating types of flavor, and degrees of sweetness, ripeness, or decay. However, humans have contrived to add or change the natural color in foods from very early times and for a variety of reasonsfor aesthetic purposes, to increase appetite appeal, for symbolic effect, to make a less desirable food seem more desirable, and to mask defects.

From ancient times, wide varieties of food colorants were derived from natural sourcesplant, animal, or mineral. This changed in the middle of the nineteenth century with the discovery of synthetic dyes that soon found their way into food. These synthetics were, in general, less expensive as well as more stable, controllable, and intense in hue than natural color sources. Since that time, the safety and acceptable use of food colorants, both natural and synthetic, remain controversial topics, eliciting debate, continual scientific study, and periodic legislative action.

History of Coloring in Food

There is ample evidence that early civilizations introduced color into their food. Ancient Egyptians colored food yellow with saffron, and saffron is mentioned in Homer's Iliad, dating from 700 b.c.e. Pliny the Elder relates that wines were artificially colored in 400 b.c.e. Wealthy Romans ate white bread that had been whitened by adding alum to the flour.

In the great houses of medieval Europe, cooks employed plant extracts of many hues. Along with the period's painting and stained glass, the cuisine of the late Gothic period was informed by rich and ornate color. Parti-colored dishes, jewel-toned cordials, and shimmering jellies were colored red, purple, blue, green, and yellow. Saffron had migrated from Persia as far as England by the mid-fourteenth century, and indigo, turnsole, alkanet (borage root), red saunders (a powdered wood), marigold, turmeric, safflower, parsley, spinach, fruits, and flower petal extracts commonly colored the foods of the wealthy.

In the early Renaissance (14701530), a common belief in Europe, based on Arabic ideas, was that color in food not only indicated nutritional value, but also inherent medicinal power connected to spiritual, celestial substances. Eating sweet red grapes produced full rich blood, black food like pepper or fungi induced melancholy, and coloring foods golden promoted divine solar healing.

In the sixteenth century the New World food colorants annatto, paprika, brazilwood, and cochineal arrived in Europe. In Mexico in 1518 Hernando Cortés observed the Aztecs cultivating the tiny cochineal insects (Dactylopus coccus costa ) that fed on red cactus berries. These insects were gathered by hand and ground into pigment, requiring 70,000 carcasses to make a pound. By

Naturally occurring colorants
Substance Colors Sources Used in
Anthocyanins orange-red to red to blue berries, grapes, apples, roses, hibiscus, red cabbage, sweet potato candy, fruit beverages, ice cream, yogurt, jams
Betacyanins red red beets, red chard, cactus fruit, bougainvillea candy, yogurt, ice cream, salad dressing, cake mixes
Caramel beige to brown heated sugars baked goods, gravies, vinegars, syrups, colas, seasonings, sauces
Carmine red cochineal insects candy, dairy products, drinks, fruit fillings, surimi
Carotenoids yellow to orange to red saffron, tomatoes, paprika, corn, butter, palm oil, red salmon, marigolds, marine algae, carrots, annatto meat products, cheese, butter, spice mixes, salad dressings
Chlorophylls green to olive green green plant leaves green pasta, dehydrated spinach
Riboflavin yellow vegetable leaves, milk, eggs, organ meats, malt flour, bread, pastries, cereals, dietary products
Turmeric yellow Curcuma longa rhizome pickles, mustard, spices, margarine, ice cream, cheese, baked goods, soups, cooking oil, salad dressings

1600 approximately 500,000 pounds of cochineal were shipped annually to Spain.

It was common during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to employ food colorants to disguise inferior products, and the colorants used were frequently harmful (although natural) substances. In 1820 Frederick Accum described flour whitened with alum, pickles colored green with copper sulphate, and cheeses tinted with red lead and red mercuric sulfide. By the mid-nineteenth century, black lead, Prussian blue, lead chromate, copper carbonate, vermillion, and copper arsenite were also used to color food.

The British chemist Sir William Henry Perkin created the first synthetic dye, mauveine, in 1856 by oxidizing aniline. By the end of the century, eighty synthetic dyes colored foods, and coal tar derivatives were the principle source of synthesized dyes. Americans and Europeans were consuming varieties of unregulated, artificially colored food, including jellies, butter, cheese, ice cream, sausage, pasta, and wine.

Food Coloring Regulation

Government attempts to regulate coloring agents in food have had a long history. There was a 1396 edict in Paris against coloring butter. In 1574 French authorities in Bourges prohibited the use of color to simulate eggs in pastries, and Amsterdam forbade annatto for coloring butter in 1641. Denmark listed colors permitted for food coloring in 1836, and Germany's Color Act of 1887 prohibited harmful colors in food. A report to the British Medical Association in Toronto in 1884 resulted in the Adulteration Act, the first list of prohibited food additives. Australia passed the Pure Food Act in 1905.

The United States Food and Drug Act of 1906 restricted synthetic food colors to those that could be tested as safe. Of the eighty colors in use, only seven were approved as certified colors. In 1938 the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics (FD&C) Act approved fifteen dyes for use in food, drugs, and cosmetics and assigned color numbers instead of their common names (thus, amaranth became Red No. 2).

Government and consumers' concerns regarding food additives intensified in the 1950s with new scientific findings. In 1960 the U.S. Congress passed the Color Additives Amendment to the FD&C Act, which placed the burden of establishing safety on the food manufacturing industry and created a new category, "color additives exempt from certification." This includes both "natural colors" and "nature-identical" colors (those synthetically made but chemically identical to natural colors, like beta-carotene and canthaxanthin). The Delaney Clause prohibited any color additive that could be shown to induce cancer in humans or animals.

Since the 1970s the inclusion of colorants in food has received considerable scrutiny based primarily on concerns regarding the carcinogenic properties of colorants. In 1992 a U.S. court decision interpreted the Delaney Clause to mean that zero levels of carcinogens are permissible. With further research findings, certified colors continue to be delisted.

In response to increased consumer perception that natural colorants are safer, manufacturers have moved toward more natural and less synthetic colorants in food. However, the term "natural," as it pertains to colors, has never been legally defined and has no universally accepted definition. In addition, a small percentage of the population demonstrates sensitivity or allergic reactions to some natural colorants such as cochineal. Currently, consumer groups advocate the minimized use of food colorants, as well as a detailed listing of specific colorants on food labels.

See also Additives; Artificial Foods; Food Politics: U.S.; Food Safety; Natural Foods; Presentation of Food; Styling of Food .


Albala, Ken. Eating Right in the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Bober, Phyllis Pray. Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

"Colorants." In Foods and Food Production Encyclopedia, edited by Douglas M. Considine and Glenn D. Considine, pp. 471474. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982.

"Coloring of Food." In Foods and Nutrition Encyclopedia, edited by Audrey H. Ensminger, M. E. Ensminger, James E. Konlande, and John R. K. Robson, vol. 1, pp. 458461. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1994.

Dalby, Andrew. Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Farrer, K. T. H. "Food Additives." In The Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, vol. 2. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Gullett, Elizabeth A. "Color and Food." In Encyclopedia of Food Science and Technology, edited by Y. H. Hui, vol. 1. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992.

Hunter, Beatrice Trum. "What Are Natural Colors?" Consumers' Research 82, issue 8 (August 1999): 2025.

Marmion, Daniel M. Handbook of U.S. Colorants for Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics. New York: Wiley, 1984.

Peterson, T. Sarah. Acquired Taste: The French Origins of Modern Cooking. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Watson, R. H. J. "The Importance of Colour in Food Psychology." In Natural Colours for Food and Other Uses, edited by J. N. Counsell, pp. 2737. London: Applied Science Publishers, 1981.

MM Pack