Artificial food colorings are omnipresent in our daily lives. They are responsible for the spectacular color variety of our candies, the pink flesh of farmed salmon, and even the weirdly bright shade of green of pickles. They are found in so many of our foods, yet we do not think much about them. But are they as safe for us as we think?

What are artificial food colorings and what are they made of?

It has been shown that consumers prefer that the color of their food match its flavor. A lot of the foods we consume are highly processed and end up a different color than we'd expect them to be. Many sports drinks, for example, are translucent before adding food colorings. So we add color to match the taste, like green coloring to apple-flavored foods and yellow coloring to foods that taste like lemon.

The FDA has approved seven artificial food colorings for consumption in the United States. The majority of them are made out of petroleum and crude oil (1). The final product is highly refined and is tested to not have any traces of petroleum.

Are artificial food colorings bad for my health?

In 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to ban artificial food colorings because of recent studies that found a small, but significant, negative effect of these substances on children's behavior (2). These substances were also found to be carcinogenic, cause hypersensitivity reactions, and instigate behavioral problems (3). These findings were largely controversial, and the FDA ruled that artificial food colorings could still be used in food products without the use of a warning label.

Should you avoid artificial food colorings?

The evidence to support the claims that artificial food colorings cause cancer and other negative health outcomes is weak. Much more work needs to be done to definitively attribute any effects artificial food colorings may have on our health.

While we wait for the results of these studies, we can take proactive steps in protecting our health. It has been established that the food we consume plays a large role in our health. Unhealthy, highly processed foods are some of the biggest sources of artificial food colorings. By removing these products from your diet, you will improve your overall health and reduce the amount of artificial food colorings you consume.

However, if you have to bake a ton of cupcake for a bake sale and food coloring is unavoidable, try to consume and use natural alternatives. These substitutes do not have any negative health consequences and tend to be less processed. Some common dyes include beet roots for red coloring, carrot juice for orange coloring, saffron and turmeric powder for orange coloring, spinach for green coloring, blueberries for blue coloring, and blackberries for purple coloring!


References

  1. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/2015-2016/october-2015/food-colorings.html
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3441937/
  3. https://cspinet.org/resource/food-dyes-rainbow-risks
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