Scanning the array of foods at a typical produce market one can quickly see the relationship between nature and color. Similar to the way that different shades are an important form of communication in nature, we have come to rely on color as an integral part of our evaluation of a food. It is this reliance, together with the marketing of perfect-looking food, which has made adding colors to processed foods necessary in the eyes of food manufacturers.
The presence (or absence) of specific colors is seen as an indicator of wholesomeness or ripeness, and as a hint of flavors and textures about to be tasted. We do, in fact, eat first with our eyes.
At one time, it was commonplace for color to be used unscrupulously to hide the defects of spoiled merchandise. For example, small amounts of copper sulfate, a known poison, were added to bring pickles to a brighter shade of green, and leaded dyes were used to give confections their bright colors. It took the passage of the Federal Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 to outlaw these practices.
To make this most artificial of processes seem more natural, food processors are turning to colors from natural sources. Although the name might indicate differently, natural colors are rarely natural to the food in which they're used. Rather, they are color-rich chemicals that come from animal, vegetable or mineral sources.
Natural red food color, for instance, can be extracted from beets, or it can come from carmine, a crimson pigment from the shell of a Central American insect. Both are considered "natural" red colors; they're used in everything from fruit drinks to candy to strawberry ice cream.
Label terminology for natural colors can be quite confusing. If a natural color is not "natural" for the food in which it's used -- as in the use of a beet powder to tint a strawberry yogurt -- the food cannot claim to be naturally colored. But as the beet coloring is a "natural" color, the yogurt could claim to have no artificial colors.
Whenever artificial colors are used it must be indicated on the label. At present, the only color that needs to be mentioned by name is FD&C Yellow No.5, also called tartrazine. The FDA ordered this special mention after scientific research projected that as many as 100,000 people in this country, including a large proportion of aspirin-sensitive individuals, could have allergic reactions to the color.
The FD&C in the name of an artificial color stands for the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, the 1938 legislation that gave authority to regulate the dyes used in foods, drugs and cosmetics. The act also began a numbering system for the chemical substances used to color these goods.
Over the years many "numbers" have come and gone. One of the more notable was the 1976 banning of FD&C Red No.2, also called red dye No.2, a widely used food and cosmetic coloring. This color, as with many banned colors before it, was found to cause cancer in experimental animals. This act, which among other things, yanked the red candies out of the M&M bag, focused public attention on the possible dangers from artificial colors, and likely was a key event in the industry shift toward the use of natural colors.
There continues to be a justifiable controversy surrounding the use of food colors. After all, their entire purpose is to change the color of a food into one that is more acceptable to the consumer.
There is a fear, however, that if they were discontinued, few would be interested in purchasing a white stick of margarine, a gray hot dog, a brownish-gray maraschino cherry or a colorless cola -- despite the fact that these are the real colors of these processed foods.
It would seem that as long as we continue to hold perfect color as an ideal, it's only "natural" that we will continue to seek food that looks best -- regardless of whether that "look" comes from nature or an additive.