How Toxic Are the Food Colorings in What You Eat?

Nestle announced last week that it plans to remove all artificial colors and flavors from its candy bars. The company said it was doing so in response to consumer preferences, not because there was anything dangerous about the artificial products it was using.

Nestle isn’t the only company making the switch. Hershey’s is beginning its journey in this direction as well. Luke J.W. Haffenden, the chief flavorist with Novotaste, a Montreal-based flavor solutions provider, told me he thinks these moves are just the tip of the iceberg.

“In the food industry, in the last couple of years, it has been a hot topic of discussion. You go to any of these huge conventions, and a significant portion of companies are manufacturing, selling and or distributing natural color options,” Haffenden told me. “Some of these companies are making lots of noise, because they think that it will be a marketing advantage. And some are quietly reformulating and hoping nobody notices.”

It’s part of a general trend toward moving to natural ingredients, in terms of colors, flavors and other functional ingredients, such as preservatives, he says. This change is being driven as much by consumer sentiment as it is by the increasing availability of viable natural alternatives. Only in late 2013 has a naturally derived blue coloring come on the market, an extract of the bacteria spirulina. But there are also health considerations percolating, often below the surface, and with health concerns come legal concerns.

“When you have a company like Nestle that has a worldwide initiative to remove all artificial coloring, that says something. And they aren’t just doing this for the marketing value.” Haffenden told me he wonders if there might be some health implications the company is scared of.

At home, Haffenden is picky about what kinds of food colorings his two children consume, regardless of whether they’re currently approved by government regulatory bodies. “If it’s got Blue #2, for example, I would prefer that my kids limit the consumption of this product over an extended period of time. Though generally speaking I’m more concerned about the sugar content.”

Haffenden is hardly one to fear chemicals simply because they are synthesized in a lab, or have unpronounceable names. His job involves using chemicals and other ingredients to manipulate the taste, texture, color, and other properties of processed foods. When it comes to safety, Haffenden evaluates these on a case-by-case basis, with an understanding of what certain chemical structures can do, physiologically. “With chemical structures, there tends to be relationships between activity, toxicity, odor, taste as well as other chemical and physical properties.

Haffenden emailed me the chemical structure of Red #2, which has been banned from use as a food additive since 1976. The chemical, which is synthesized from petroleum products, consists largely of circular carbon chains called benzene rings, with some protruding groups of sodium sulfate. He also sent the structures of several other artificial colors that are currently approved for use, and pointed out how similar the structures of these are to the banned Red #2. Like Red #2, these molecules, such as Blue #2 (Indigotine), Blue #1 (Brilliant Blue), Red #40 (Allura Red) and Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow) are also petroleum derivatives made from coal tar that are composed largely of benzene rings and sodium sulfate. 

Many of these dyes are banned in Europe for use in food (although they are permitted in the pigmentation of leather, textiles and paint).

“Chemicals get metabolized in the body, and as a result, get broken down into smaller components that can be used or simply be expelled out,” he wrote. “Many natural colors have degradation products that are very useful to the body...the same cannot be said about artificial colors.”

As a general rule of thumb, he wrote, “I’m always slightly more suspicious of synthesized chemicals that do not have comparable natural analogs.”

This isn’t to say he is suspicious of chemicals simply if they come from a lab. At issue is whether a similar molecule exists in nature, even if the ones actually used in a food product are created in a lab rather than extracted from natural sources. Extracts are considered “natural,” while those synthesized from other precursors are termed “artificial.”

“As a food chemist/flavorist I realize that there is a reality that products need to be colored properly, because a consumer’s decision making is based on multisensory cues,” he wrote. “But more and more, as a dad, I prefer to buy products with ingredients that exist in nature. Such pigments are more likely to be antioxidants, he told me. They have better track records, with known metabolic pathways, breakdown products, and less alarming toxicological data.

Haffenden referred me to the orange pigments beta-carotene, found in carrots, chili peppers and elsewhere, and lycopene (found in tomatoes) as not only less troublesome, but potentially beneficial. Beta carotene is a precursor to vitamin A, and lycopene is an antioxidant that is thought to help with a range of medical issues including helping to ward off prostate cancer.

Compared with chemicals that have no natural analogs, Haffenden is much less concerned with another food colorant that has been in the news lately, the caramel coloring 4-methylamadazole (often called 4-Mel for short) that’s used in soft drinks like Pepsi. According to a recent paper by a team of researchers from Consumer Reports and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public health, between 76 and 5,000 soda-drinking Americans who will develop cancer because of 4-Mel consumed via their soda habit.

Haffenden is not impressed, pointing out that 4-Mel is a byproduct of the Mailard reaction, by which food is caramelized in the presence of heat. That’s quite a range, he noted. “If we want to focus on 4-Mel,” he wrote, “why not focus on BBQ, coffee, baked goods and chocolate?” (These are other dietary sources of 4-Mel.)

This isn’t to say Haffenden thinks that just because something is “natural” it’s OK. “The toxicity of just about anything is related to the concentration and frequency of exposure,” he wrote. “Too much water can cause water intoxication.”

But on balance, he says, there’s more to like, and less to fear, with naturally derived colorants.

With the recent approval of a natural blue food coloring from spirulina, food companies have one less excuse for making the switch—although Haffenden cautions that while natural blue colors exist, they are less likely to be widely adopted “if they do not have comparable stabilities, functionalities, price and availabilities as artificial blues.”  

Not only do colors with natural analogs come with fewer unknowns and even the occasional health benefit, he said, they can also add subtle complexity to the flavor of the products they color. He points to Smarties, a Nestle product that in his native Canada is something like what we would call M&Ms.

“I love the new Smarties because the natural colors contribute a residual taste in some cases. The colors are all extracts from plants, fruits, vegetables and spices, and they add a subtle element. You’ve got that candy coating that has something there but you can’t put your finger on it, and then you bite in and the chocolate flavor comes in. It’s a much more complex taste.”


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