"Eat with your eyes first". As human beings, appearance can heavily influence us and form our opinion around different people and things; especially food. Naturally, when food has an attractive look, it catches our attention within seconds; whether its some colourful fruits, some vibrant vegetables or a beautiful cake for celebration. No matter what, the appearance of food can convince us to love it or hate it before even tasting it!
If you're like many people around the world, you probably have some form of food dye sitting in your pantry, which is why in this article, we're going to be explaining to you all about food colouring, how it works; and whether it is actually good or bad for you?
The topics that we will be talking about include:
- Brief history of food colouring
- Use of food colours in the industry
- What are food colours made of
- Use of food colours in bakeries
- Are Food Colours Good or Bad for Your Health?
- What to use instead of food colouring
Brief History of Food Colouring
The idea of colouring food has been around since ancient times! This concept traces back to the Egyptians who used organic extracts in their baking to make their products more appealing. This method and time period was around 300 BC. However, the first synthetic dye discovery was in 1856 by the British chemist William Henry Perkin. Soon after Perkin's discovery, others began to use synthetic dyes in foods, drugs, and cosmetics. The first dyes were known as "coal tar colours", since they were produced from offshoots of coal processing.
Within the next 44 years, by the 1900's; many foods in the US had artificial colours and before you know it by 1931 the USDA's approval was official for 15 colours to be used in foods. Later around 1938, the federal food, drug, and cosmetic act passed and by the 1960's colour additives amendments passed as well.
In 2011, the FDA determined that "scientific data did not support a casual link between the consumption of certified colour additives in food and hyperactivity and other problematic behaviours of children"; And as for the future, scientists believe that food colours are safe and can be studied in more depth.
Use of Food Colours in the Industry
Why are food colours so popular anyway? The simple answer is because of the appearance they give to our food. Both in the past and today, adding colours to food's a common method of making it more attractive; therefore more sellable. However, today the natural look of food is appreciated more and is becoming more popular.
By 1900, which was almost 50 years after Perkin's discovery; artificially coloured foods were available all around the U.S; however the only flaw in the system was that food colouring wasn't used for a good purpose all the time. Because of the fact that some people used this opportunity to hide the interior of defective foods, a precise assessment of the ingredients in the food colours was operated; and dangerous materials including lead, arsenic, and mercury were found.
Halal or Haram?
A common question and issue around food colouring is whether it is "halal" or not. The answer to this question is quite simple. This case solely depends on different colours; since certain colours contain a high level of concentrated alcohol and crushed up insects. The short answer is that some food colours are halal and some are not.
What are Food Colours Made of?
Would you drink black water? or clear Coca Cola? It's quite common for our minds to expect a food's colour to match its flavour; which is why even if black water is still water just with colour, it'll still make you feel ill or strange.
What's really inside?
It would surprise you to know that food dyes are mostly just bugs...
But don't worry, these bugs aren't just the average cockroaches and ladybugs. The extract from a special type of bug called "cochineal" is what's really in those colours you see behind the shelves at the supermarket! The history of using these bugs goes back to the Aztecs who used them to dye their fabrics. The deep red dye from these bugs is what makes the bright and bold colour in foods such as strawberry ice cream, cherry flavoured drinks, and more....
The chemical extracted from these bugs is called "carminic acid"; with the formula of (C22H20O13 ).
As gross as this concept is, these bugs are scientifically proven as safe to ingest. Although these chemicals are "safe" to eat; some people may have allergic reactions to them; leading to an "anaphylactic shock" which is a severe life threatening condition. The best way to look for these chemicals in a product is to look out for any of the following products on the ingredient list label:
- Carminic Acid
- Natural Red 4
Use of Food Colours in Bakeries
The popular saying "you eat with your eyes before you taste with your tongue" has been around for quite a while; however it is very noticeable and relatable today. Consumers expect vibrant colours and designs in their food and the easiest and cheapest way to solve this problem is food colouring. This is exactly why bakeries around the world use a range of vibrant colours. It would be great to make all these colours naturally; but unfortunately no bakery is going to do that because why choose the harder option when there is food colour which makes the job easier and much cheaper.
Having a cake or some chocolates for instance with some vibrant colours is what also attracts the eyes all over social media too. It's usually the rainbow cake that gets all the likes and comments; not the plain chocolate cake...right? Just like a rainbow easily catches our eye, a colourful sweet can do that too.
Coloured baked goods are especially attractive to kids, which is why you can easily find a range of colourful sweets for children's events or birthdays.
Different types of food colours
There are 5 different types of food colours which we will be discussing. liquid, liquid gel, gel paste, powdered, and natural.
Liquid food colouring
Liquid food dye is the cheapest and most common option out there; however it is best for smaller sweets like wafers, cookies...since with larger desserts it may take up to 2-3 bottles to get a good colour. This type of food dye is great for beginners; since it is packed in a small bottle and it is very easy to use and can be used one drop at a time until you get the desired colour.
Liquid gel dye
Liquid gel dye is somewhat similar to liquid food colouring. They are both affordable and come in a small bottle; and that's pretty much where the similarities stop. For a starter, the biggest problem with this dye is that it's quite hard to get your hands on compared to liquid food colouring. However as for the benefits, since this dye is highly concentrated, its like a gel which means a little bit can go a long way. Liquid gel dye is suitable for icings and getting vivid colours.
Gel paste dye
This dye is very similar liquid gel dye in texture, however is mostly for colouring a larger batch and getting a bold and strong look. The worst thing about gel paste food colouring is that it is only available in special baking stores and is very hard to get. This concentrated food dye comes in small pots/jars; and has a very strong colour which is why it is best to use it a little bit at a time with a toothpick till you get the desired colour.
Powdered food colour
Powdered dye is a fun one to experiment with for sure. It is basically coloured powder that's in a jar. You can use this for anything, cakes, icing, or even just to dust it on sweets for a nice finish. Powdered food dye is a good option for recipes that are sensitive to extra liquids (chocolate, macarons..).
For normal cakes and other sweets, you can just spring some into your mixture and easily mix it with a couple of drops of clear alcohol and keep adding more powder till you get the colour you want.
Natural food colouring
Last but not least, the popular natural dye. Natural food colouring is great for those who avoid synthetic dyes, or concentrated liquids. The best thing about natural dyes is that not only you can find them in shops or online, you can easily make them within minutes. For a quick reference, here is a quick list of what ingredients create what colours below!
- Yellow - saffron, turmeric
- Red - beetroot powder
- Green - matcha, spinach
- Orange - carrot juice
- Blue - red cabbage
- Pink - strawberries, raspberries
- Brown - coffee, tea, cocoa
- Purple - blueberries
Is Food Colouring Good or Bad for Your?
Did you know that the use of food colouring has increased by 500% in the past 50 years? And that the largest consumer of food dyes are children? So it's probably important for you to know what your children or yourself are putting in their bodies and whether its safe or not.
The question whether food dyes are safe or not is a controversial and a very two sided topic. Although there are endless articles supporting the fact that food colouring is safe, a large number of these websites and companies only care about making money and not your health. There has been a number of long term tests of food dyes on animals and most of the colours are proven safe; however a few have shown links to certain types of cancer. Other studies over the past 30 years have found links between food colouring and hyperactivity and behaviour issues in children. Some dyes are even known to cause mild allergic reactions towards more sensitive consumers.
Responds to the risks
Although no country has "officially" banned any food dyes, the UK's FSA (food standards agency) has placed a voluntary ban on some of the dyes because of their potential risks and harms. The European parliament refused to place any bans; however, they did take on the idea of placing warning labels on any European food product containing food dyes. Some other states around the world have considered similar bans; but so far nothing has been officialised.
Natural Food Colouring
Studies might say that some food dyes are healthy and some are not, but why take the risk at all when you can choose natural food colouring? Making or buying natural food colours might need a little more time and money; but don't you think a few extra minutes or dollars are worth avoiding the risks of cancer, hyperactivity...
Even when you're looking to buy some cupcakes or to buy a celebration cake you could find alternative options that don't contain synthetic food dyes and only use natural ones.
At the moment, moving towards natural food dyes and natural products is a big trend in the world; especially the baking and cooking industry. This trend is visible both in bakeries and restaurants around the world. A great example of 100% naturally dyed sweets is Azidelicious Cupcakes who are based in South Australia and sell premium, natural cakes and cupcakes. Recently they have introduced some new celebration cakes to their online shop, so if you're looking for celebration cakes Adelaide, celebration cake delivery, and amazingly affordable celebration cake prices don't hesitate to have a look around on their website or social platforms (Instagram & Facebook: azideliciouscupcakes).
In conclusion, even though studies have "proven most food dyes to be safe" you never really know what the long term side effect of chemicals can be; which is why we suggest that you try your best to avoid synthetic food dyes and stick with the safer option; natural dyes.