> How Safe Are the Colour Additives in Your Food? - The Food Safety Company How Safe Are the Colour Additives in Your Food? - The Food Safety Company
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    Friday, 16 December 2016

    How Safe Are the Colour Additives in Your Food?


    Colour additives are what make the food products you love look like they do. They make it look the way you expect it to, from the red of your juice drink to the green hue of your minty toothpaste. And you probably wouldn’t eat half of the things you did if they looked like unappetising brown goop.

    Food colour additives consist of dyes, pigments, or other substances that can impart colour when applied to food, or other consumer products. The range of products they appear in is huge - from cough syrup and eyeliner to contact lenses and cereal. But just how safe are the dreaded “E-numbers,” and do they pose any health risk beyond making your kids extremely hyper?

    According to Linda Katz, M.D., Director of the Office of Cosmetics and Colors in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). “There is no such thing as absolute safety of any substance. In the case of a new colour additive, FDA determines if there is ‘a reasonable certainty of no harm’ under the colour additive’s proposed conditions of use.” So basically, even the FDA says that they can’t be sure, but they try. So let’s try ourselves and look at some more of the facts surrounding colour additive safety.

    Most colour additives are regulated by the food authorities in respective countries (FDA for USA, FSA for UK, etc.). Colour additives are subject by law to approval by these agencies and can only be used for their specific approved uses. During the approval procedure, agencies evaluate safety data to attempt to ensure that a colour additive is safe for its intended purpose. If it is, as far as they can tell, then the additive will be marked as safe.

    Permitted colour additives come under two main categories, “certifiable” and “exempt.” Certifiable colour additives are primarily man-made, usually from petroleum and coal sources. For these, the manufacturer must submit a sample from the production batch to be verified for composition and purity. Exempt colour additives come from natural sources like plants and animals, and don’t have to be certified, but both types of additive still have to undergo stringent testing and approval.


    Direct health reactions, such as allergies to colour additives, are relatively rare. For instance, in the 1980s, an FDA panel showed that less than 1 in 10000 people can have a reaction to the colouring tartrazine, resulting in itching and hives. All food colouring additives must be listed on the label, so people with allergies can avoid them, although their rarity ensures that they don’t pose that much of a threat.

    Another reaction to colour additives that concerns consumers is hyperactivity in children. We’ve all seen, and probably heard, the hordes of kids that have had way too many sweets at a child’s birthday party, careening around with that wild-eyed look, screaming and puking everywhere. But to what extent is that down to food colouring, rather than just a truckload of sugar? The jury’s still out on that one, with some studies suggesting that removing food colouring from children’s diet can reduce their hyperactivity. However, these studies are not enough to be conclusive.

    But how about longer term health concerns? Conditions like cancer and other pathological nasties that can grow over time. In 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report suggesting that that the nine artificial dyes approved in the U.S. are potentially carcinogenic and can lead to behavioural problems. The report compiled studies on food dyes and found some cannot be considered safe given elevated incidences of cancers, birth defects, and allergic reactions (triggered by Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) associated with their consumption. However, in 2011, a sector of the FDA known as the Food Advisory Committee concluded that evidence was too inconclusive to link food colouring to either cancer or hyperactivity. This highlights the fundamental problem with food colour additive safety; it’s hard to tell that something is safe, as you only really know when it’s not.

    There are a few cases of food colour additives that have definitely been revealed to have been unsafe. One of these is the infamous Sudan I (pictured atop this article), an intensely orange-red solid that was involved in one of the worst food safety incidents ever, widely used as a food colouring until it was discovered to be carcinogenic. There are other previously used dyes that are illegal, too, such as:
    • butter yellow
    • metanil yellow
    • orange G
    • rhodamine B
    • orange II
    • toluidine red


    So basically, it’s very difficult to conclude whether food colouring additives used commonly today pose any health risk. It’s impossible to say if food dyes are completely safe, but it’s likely that many are. Until you hear otherwise, it’s probably just wise to eat all heavily coloured food in moderation. And maybe take some of the laser green sweets off the kids’ party buffet table.


    Sam Franklin

    With a master’s in Literature, Sam inhales books and anything readable, spending his working hours reformulating the info he gathers into digestible articles. When not reading or writing, he likes to put his camera to work around the world, snapping street photography from Stockholm to Tokyo. Too much of this time spent in Japan teaching English has nurtured a weakness for sashimi, Japanese whisky, and robot cafés.
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    Item Reviewed: How Safe Are the Colour Additives in Your Food? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Food Safety Co
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