The consumption of store-bought food items has increased by leaps and bounds over the last decade or so. And though this has proved to be highly convenient for busy lifestyles, health-conscious people often worry about the colours used in such foods. Colours are usually added to store-bought items to enhance their appeal. This colouring can be natural or artificial. While natural food colourings are usually safe, the artificial ones can pose harm if you don’t buy from a reputed brand or store.

Artificial food dyes are used mostly in brightly-coloured candies, sport drinks, baked foods, some pickles, smoked salmon, salad dressings and in some medications as well. Research has shown that children are the highest consumers of these artificial dyes and it has increased by 500% in the last fifty years. The good news is that the FSSAI has extremely strict rules in place, to monitor and regulate the food colours that are used. Hence, when consumed in moderation, foods with artificial colours are not harmful. However, being aware of some common colourings and which foods contain these can help.

Natural and artificial food colourings

Natural food colourings include carotenoids, chlorophyll, anthocyanin and turmeric. Beta carotene is the most commonly used carotenoid that gives the bright orange colour to sweet potatoes and pumpkins. As this is fat soluble, it can be used to colour high-fat dairy products like margarine and cheese, and is generally harmless. Anthocyanin is another such natural colouring that gives a bright blue or purple colour to corn chips, jelly and soft drinks, and is water soluble.

Now, let’s take a look at the artificial dyes that are commonly used:

  1. Red No. 3 (Erythrosine): Cherry red and vibrant, this is a food colouring for cakes, popsicles and candies.
  2. Red No. 40 (Allura Red): Dark red in colour, this dye is used in candies, sports drinks, condiments and cereals.
  3. Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine): A mix of orange and yellow, this food colouring for chocolates, is also used for soft drinks, popcorn, chips, and cereals.
  4. Yellow No. 6 (Sunset Yellow): This is another orange and yellow colouring that is the best food colouring for cookies, candies, sauces, other baked foods and preserved fruits.
  5. Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue): Greenish-blue in colour, this dye is used for ice cream, packaged soups, canned peas, icings and popsicles.
  6. Blue No. 2 (Indigo Carmine): Used for candies, cereals, ice cream, and snacks, this dye is royal blue in colour.

Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 are the most common dyes used in foods.

Making of artificial dyes and safety evaluation

Artificial food dyes were initially made using coal tar, and these days, they are made using petroleum or crude oil. It is made sure that the final products do not have any of the original petroleum. An exception to this is Blue No. 2 or indigotine that is not made of petroleum but is a synthetic version of a plant-based indigo dye.

FSSAI has provided some regulations about artificial colour additives to make sure that they are safe for consumption. This helps to ensure that the foods which use such colourings are labelled, so that consumers know what they are eating. To approve any additive, the FSSAI studies its composition and the quantity of consumption, and checks if it has any health and safety issues. Once the food dye is approved, the FSSAI determines the permitted level of use for that additive. FSSAI only approves an additive if they are certain that it can cause no harm.

FSSAI approved food colourings

FSSAI has approved the use of the following natural colourings that can be artificially processed:

  1. Carotene and Carotenoids
  2. Chlorophyll
  3. Riboflavin (Lactoflavin)
  4. Caramel
  5. Annatto ( used in edible oils)
  6. Saffron
  7. Curcumin or turmeric

The artificial colourings that are permitted are:

  1. Red: Ponceau 4R, Carmoisine, and Erythrosine ( gel food colouring)
  2. Yellow: Tartrazine and Sunset Yellow FCF
  3. Blue: Indigo Carmine and Brilliant Blue FCF
  4. Green: Fast Green FCF

The food products for which the FSSAI has permitted the use of food colourings are:

  1. Ice-cream, frozen desserts, milk lollies, yoghurt, flavoured milk, and ice-cream mix-powder
  2. Biscuits like wafers, cakes, pastries, thread candies, confectionery, sweets and certain savouries.
  3. Sealed peas, cherries, strawberries, canned tomato juice, preserved papaya, fruit syrup, fruit crushes, fruit squash, jam, jellies, marmalade, and candied crystallized or glazed fruits
  4. Non-alcoholic carbonated and non-carbonated synthetic beverages which are ready to serve
  5. Custard powder
  6. Ice candies and jelly crystal
  7. Flavour pastes and emulsions for use in carbonated or non-carbonated drinks, only when they are written on the labels

The only reason why kids’ food colourings are used is to make foods look attractive, as these colours have no nutritional benefits. Artificial dyes are usually found in junk foods. So, when the goal is to provide kids with a healthy diet, it is best to moderate the consumption of artificially coloured foods. You can also try and give more natural foods that lack such colours, like:

  1. Dairy products like plain yoghurt, milk, eggs, cheese, and cottage cheese
  2. Fresh poultry and meat items like unmarinated chicken, fish and mutton
  3. Seeds and nuts such as macadamia nuts, unflavoured almonds, pecans, cashews, walnuts, and sunflower seeds
  4. A variety of fresh fruits and veggies
  5. Whole grains such as brown rice, oats, barley and quinoa
  6. Legumes like kidney beans, black beans, navy beans, chickpeas, and lentils

To conclude, while buying foods containing artificial colours, make sure you buy from well-known brands. Check if the colours are approved by FSSAI, and ensure that your child consumes these in moderation. On a regular basis, his or her diet should consist more of natural and healthy food items.