Food Coloring History

Food Coloring Dates Back Hundreds of Years

Food coloring
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We eat with the eye first. That means beautifully, artfully presented and colorful food is more appetizing. Today, we have the luxury of food-safe dyes to color foods just about any hue we desire, but it wasn't always that way. 

Food Coloring History

In ancient times, natural ingredients like plant and herb extracts, and vegetable and fruit peelings were used to add rich color to foods. Saffron, carrots, pomegranates, grapes, berries, beets, parsley, spinach, indigo, turnsole, alkanet (borage root), red saunders (a powdered wood), marigold, and turmeric were all used as food coloring agents.

Some of our ancestors also used natural substances like minerals and ores, such as azure (copper carbonate), gold leaf, and silver leaf, some of which were downright poisonous.

Elise Fleming researched cookbooks dating as far back as 1390 A.D. and has compiled an interesting list of food additives used hundreds of years ago with charming quotes in Olde English from sources in her informative treatise on the food coloring of yesteryear.

Natural Food Colorings

Some of the most common natural food dyes are carotenoids, chlorophyll, anthocyanin, and turmeric:

  • Carotenoids have a red, yellow or orange color and the most well-known carotenoid is beta-carotene which gives sweet potatoes and pumpkins their color. Beta-carotene is often added to margarine and cheese to give it a more appetizing color.
  • Chlorophyll is a natural pigment found in all green plants. Mint- and lime-flavored foods like candy and ice cream are often colored using chlorophyll.
  • Anthocyanins give grapes, blueberries, and cranberries their deep purple, and blue colors, and they are often used to color water-based products like soft drinks and jelly.
  • Turmeric is not only used as a spice but also as a pigment to turn foods a pleasant deep yellow color, as in mustard and other foods.

Synthetic Food Dyes

When natural food colorings became too expensive because of the cost of gathering and processing the materials used to make them, synthetic dyes that could be mass-produced at a fraction of the cost, had a longer shelf life, and were more vibrant in color arrived on the scene.

As early as 1856, William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic organic dye, called mauve, used to color foods, drugs, and cosmetics. 

By 1900, it was a common practice for foods, drugs, and cosmetics available in the U.S. to be artificially colored. However, not all of the coloring agents were harmless (some contained lead, arsenic, and mercury) and some were being used to hide inferior or defective foods. 

In 1906, federal agencies stepped in and Congress passed the United States Food and Drugs Act, which prohibited the use of poisonous or harmful colors in confectionery and the coloring or staining of food to conceal damage or inferiority. 

Protecting the Consumer

The federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 finally created strict rules governing the use of synthetic foods and, surprisingly, only seven colors were approved for widespread use in food and they are still on the list today. They are Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue FCF), Blue No. 2 (Indigotine), Green No. 3 (Fast Green FCF), Red No. 3 (Erythrosine), Red No. 40 (Allura Red AC), Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine), and Yellow No. 6 (Sunset Yellow FCF). 

Today, there are hundreds of strictly regulated food colorants that are safe for consumption.

The Future of Food Coloring

Most people are familiar with the airbrush techniques used to color the frosting of celebration cakes, well here's something new. One of the latest food-coloring products on the market is edible food spray paint in aerosol cans that come in red, blue, gold, silver, and other colors. It's all food-grade and safe (so far!) and approved by the FDA.

Why Would Anyone Want to Dye Their Food Anyway?

In the past, and to a certain degree today, color was added to foods to make it look more appealing to the consumer and, thus, more sellable, or to disguise inferior products or those that had turned or were spoiling. Today, the natural look of unadulterated foods is highly valued. Read how to dye your food naturally.

Article Sources
The Spruce Eats uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Arnold LE, Lofthouse N, Hurt E. Artificial food colors and attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms: conclusions to dye for. Neurotherapeutics. 2012;9(3):599-609.  doi:10.1007/s13311-012-0133-x