Food colours

At safefood, we regularly carry out consumer surveys across the island to better understand your opinions on different food safety and healthy eating issues. One consumer concern that comes up regularly is food additives and E numbers.

A quick online search will give lots of opinions on food additives, with many sources highlighting the impacts these can have on our long-term health. Food colours are certainly no exception in this regard. So are these warnings warranted? Why do manufacturers use them in the first place?

a jar of jamWell, it’s certainly nothing new and people have been adding substances to food to enhance or change the colour for thousands of year. Some of the earliest Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations were familiar with food additives and the aim was the same as it is now - to make foods more acceptable to consumers.

Mostly, food additives were used to mask poor quality food and a whole range of toxic substances were used; things like mercury, lead and arsenic. By the late 19th century, the bright colours of hard-boiled sweets were probably due to toxic heavy metal additives which were added to make them more appealing to children!

Our food has come a long way since then and the advance of scientific knowledge together with an evolution in regulatory control means that we don’t have to worry about arsenic in our favourite sweets anymore. Nowadays, the concern is really around whether or not the food colour is natural or artificial. In the European Union we now have a list of forty colours approved for use in food by the European Food Safety Authority. Even though approved, some of these are limited to certain, specific foods. For example, Litholrubine BK (E180) is only permitted as a colour for cheese rind. This doesn’t mean that all cheese rinds are coloured using E180 but a cheese manufacturer is permitted to do so if needed. The same goes for all other food colours; just because they can be used, doesn’t necessarily mean they will be used.

In all, 19 of the permitted food colours are synthetic and 21 are derived from natural sources. Some are instantly recognisable like Carotene, Beetroot and Paprika while others are names that we might not be familiar with but eat regularly including Canthaxanthin E161g (which is responsible for the ‘pink’ in salmon) and the Anthocyanins E163 (which are responsible for the different colours in fruit & veg). Natural colours also include Gold, Silver and Aluminium (for cake decorations). 

three colour samples

The market for food colours is expected to grow with increases in food processing and the opening up of new markets. In 2011, the global market value for natural colours exceeded that for synthetic colours for the first time. It will present a challenge for food manufacturers as synthetic food colours provide the required processing and shelf-life stability as well as an extensive range of hues that depict the flavours that consumers want. Natural colours are generally less stable than their synthetic counter-parts and can often interact with other food ingredients. In the short term, it is likely that synthetic colours will continue to play a role in the colouring of our processed food.

You can read more about the history of food colours in our new food colour resource.


Posted: 19/07/2013 16:13:18 by James McIntosh
Filed under: Allergens, E numbers, Food colouring, Intolerances, Resources

About Me

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James McIntosh
Hi, my name is James McIntosh and I’m the Chief Specialist in Toxicology at safefood. My job is quite varied ranging from food safety research, working to increase awareness of food allergy and food intolerance, to dealing with queries on a whole range of food safety issues. Since my job is entirely indoors, I try and get to the great outdoors whenever I can and, weather permitting, I can be found cycling, hill walking or exploring the coast. I also like to travel and my only worry is that I won’t get to see everything – so much planet, so little time!