We eat with our eyes 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.
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 due to the cost of gathering and processing the materials, synthetic dyes arrived on the scene. These could be mass-produced at a fraction of the cost, had a longer shelf life, and were more vibrant in color.
As early as 1856, William Henry Perkin was credited with discovering 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. The Act made certification of such additives mandatory and introduced the naming of food colors. These are still used today, including FD&C Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue FCF), FD&C Blue No. 2 (Indigotine), FD&C Green No. 3 (Fast Green FCF), FD&C Red No. 3 (Erythrosine), FD&C Red No. 40 (Allura Red AC), FD&C Yellow No. 5 (Tartrazine), and FD&C 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
There have been fun and fantastical developments in food coloring, and techniques to apply it, like airbrushing photos and edible spray paint in aerosol cans. Colors have blossomed into pastels, neons, metallics, even sparkles, and more. However, there seems to be a return in demand in recent years for more natural ingredients, and their organic hues, from consumers increasingly focused on health.
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.
Stich E. Food color and coloring food. Handbook on Natural Pigments in Food and Beverages. Elsevier; 2016:3-27. doi:10.1016/B978-0-08-100371-8.00001-4
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Color additives history. Updated November 3, 2017.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Summary of color additives for use in the United States in foods, drugs, cosmetics, and medical devices. Updated March 3, 2022.
Coultate T, Blackburn RS. Food colorants: their past, present and future. Coloration Technol. 2018;134(3):165-186. doi:10.1111/cote.12334