food dye

What does removing artificial colors actually mean?

June 24, 2015

With the quantity of recent announcement by food companies  regarding the removal of artificial colors from products, it got me wondering just what removing artificial colors actually means for these products.


In the first six months of 2015, Nestle, Panera, Kraft, Hershey, McDonalds, and General Mills, all announced removal of artificial colors and flavors from at least some products in the United States.  Some companies went even further to include the removal of additional food additives and ingredients

Why are these companies making these changes and why now?  The short answer is these companies are responding to consumers.  A 2014 study from Nielsen, a marketing research firm, showed over 60% of Americans said the absence of artificial colors or flavors is important to their food purchase decisions.  For decades consumer advocates have raised concern about the potential health risks of these food additives.  A report from CSPI summarizing the risks associated with food dyes ranging from allergies reactions, hyperactivity and cancer, can be found here.


What do these changes mean for products?  Altering many of these products in the USA will be fairly easy for those companies who also sell products in Europe. The European food regulatory body already requires companies to find workaround for artificial food dyes. You can find numerous blogs and articles online comparing Strawberry Sundays at McDonalds, Strawberry Nutri Grain bars, and the like across the two continents.


Kellogg's Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars ingredients. From Britian compared to the US.


However, for those companies and products that have not yet been reformulated there is risk.  Will consumers still want to buy your product?  Reformulating product recipes can impact products’ flavors, texture and appearance as well as cost.


Today, the following seven artificial colors are approved for use by the FDA:

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 4.18.52 PM



The FDA also classifies 37 food additives as natural colors:

  • Annatto extract
  • Astaxanthin
  • Astaxanthin dimethyldisuccinate
  • Dehydrated beets (beet powder)
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Canthaxanthin
  • Caramel
  • [beta]-Apo-8′-carotenal
  • [beta]-Carotene
  • Cochineal extract; carmine
  • Sodium copper chlorophyllin
  • Toasted partially defatted cooked cottonseed flour
  • Ferrous gluconate
  •  Ferrous lactate
  • Grape color extract
  • Grape skin extract (enocianina)
  • Haematococcus algae meal
  • Synthetic iron oxide
  • Fruit juice
  • Vegetable juice
  • Dried algae meal
  • Tagetes (Aztec marigold) meal and extract
  • Carrot oil
  • Corn endosperm oil
  • Paprika
  • Paprika oleoresin
  • Mica-based pearlescent pigments
  • Paracoccus pigment
  • Phaffia yeast
  • Riboflavin
  • Saffron
  • Spirulina extract
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Tomato lycopene extract; tomato lycopene concentrate
  • Turmeric
  • Turmeric oleoresin


Often combinations of natural colors are used to substitute for artificial ones.  Nestle announced it is substituting Yellow 5 and Red 40 at the center of a Butterfinger with Annatto and replacing Blue 2, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 with Paprika and Cocoa Power in Nestle Crunch Girl Scout’s Coconut and Caramel bars.


Experts suggest companies must consider five variables: brightness, price, stability, shelf life and supply.  Each of these five variable presents risks:

  • Brightness: Few natural colors are as bright as their synthetic counterparts
  • Price: Natural colors can cost as much as twenty times artificial colors
  • Stability: Various natural colors are not light or heat stable and will fade quickly on the supermarket shelves or will change in color when heated
  • Shelf Life: Most natural colors have a shelf life of around 6 months compared to the artificial colors’ many years; some natural colors may require cold storage.
  • Supply: A natural color that was recently available could become scarce if there was a bad crop or increased demand


While not artificial colors, Hershey called out the risks of substituting ingredients – by substituting real Vanilla with Vanillin it is introducing variability into its processing which it will need to standardize.


Foodwise Bottomline

Subbing out artificial colors is a good thing, but don’t be surprised if accompanying changes of replacing other artificial ingredients like flavors and/or other ingredients consumers find less desirable changes the texture, look and/or taste of your product.

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