How did colouring of foods begin

Since the colour of food influences consumers, many food manufacturers use dyes in foods ranging from meat and candies to wine. The aim is to simulate a colour that is perceived by the consumer as natural, such as adding red colouring to canned cherries which would otherwise be beige. Food companies add more than 15 million pounds of artificial food dyes to foods each year.

How did this begin? In the early 1900s, as the industrial age got underway, workers became dependent on low cost factory produced food. Food producers used the cheapest ingredients and adulterants and then, to hide this, they "restored" the colour. Red lead was used to colour cheese and confectionary. Copper arsenite was used to colour used tea leaves for resale. The bulk of chemically synthesized colours were derived from aniline, a toxic petroleum product and coal tar. Manufacturers phased out natural dyes for economic reasons: chemically synthesized colours were easier and cheaper to produce. Their use spread from paint, plastic and clothing to food.

Processed meat, fish and sauce contained Armenian bole, red lead, or sulphuret of mercury. Curry contained lead and mercury, pickles, bottled fruit and vegetables had copper, candies had any number of poisonous pigments and green tea had Prussian blue pigment mixed in it. Dyes entered all sorts of popular foods and drink. Many people died.

Gradually food dye regulations came, with each country developing their own legislation regulating the use of dangerous minerals such as arsenic, copper, chromium, lead, mercury and zinc, which were frequently used as colorants. In 1962, the WHO and FAO created an international commission, the Codex Alimentarius, to work out the application of food additives. However, this is not legally binding till today. In the United States, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 reduced the permitted list of synthetic colours from 700 down to seven.(The most commonly used dyes are Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which make up 90%+ of the market. These dyes are created synthetically by burning coal tar or are petroleum byproducts like tartrazine and erythrosine.)

Regulations differ from country to country even now. For instance Yellow, which is tartrazine (used in soft drinks, energy drinks, cake mixes, salty snacks, cereals, packaged soups), and has been linked to asthma, allergies and behavioural changes, is banned in some countries and allowed in others.Orange B is banned all over the world but is still used in the US for hot dog and sausage casings. Dyes used in meat, milk, and candies, like Quinoline Yellow, Carmoisine, Ponceau 4R, Patent Blue V and Green S, are not allowed in the US and U.K. Erithrosine, which was recognized as a thyroid carcinogen and is banned in cosmetics, is still used for sausages. Sunset Yellow, which causes adrenal tumours in animals and hypersensitive reactions, is still used in meats and gelatine deserts.

In all processed meats, fish, poultry, milk and eggs,dyes are used to mask quality failure and hygienic shortcomings. For instance, wild salmon has a distinctive pink colour which comes from the krill it eats in the oceans. But the salmon you get in restaurants is raised in crowded ponds and fed artificial food in order to make it fatter faster. This salmon is grey and looks inedible. So, fisheries use artificial dyes to make it pink. The dye is a chemical, Canthaxanthin, which has been linked to retinal damage in humans.

In meat processing, red and yellow colour types are preferred, with brand names such as “red blood”, “orange yellow” or “sunset yellow”. Tartrazine (E 102, yellow), cochineal extract (E 120, red) or carnoisine (E 122, red). While the first is made from coal tar and is very contentious for its role in allergies, the other two are made from crushed beetles.

Nitrates and nitrites are used to cure meat and poultry. They help kill bacteria and give meat a pink, or red, colour. Nitrite is highly toxic (the lethal dose in humans is about 22 mg/kg body weight). The use of nitrites is controversial, because nitrosamines are formed when it is cooked at high temperatures and these are carcinogenic.

The meat industry keeps the raw meat packaged in carbon monoxide. This is called "modified atmosphere packaging" (MAP) so that it can last longer in shops. When meat is exposed to carbon monoxide, it gives the meat a bright red colour. As meat ages it becomes brown or grey, but carbon monoxide keeps it looking artificially fresh for up to a full year, and can hide the growth of bacteria.

Annatto is a commercial dye produced from the red pulp of the seed of the achiote tree. It is used in cheese, butter and smoked fish. Betanin, or Beetroot Red, is a red glycosidic food dye obtained from beets and used for colouring meat and sausages to dark brown. Caramel is one of the oldest and most widely-used food colourings and is found in almost every kind of fish, shellfish, roast beef, ham, pastrami or chicken.

Carmine, made of killed insects, is routinely added to food products such as meat. yogurt and ice cream.

Carotene, which is a pigment found in many dark green, leafy, and yellow vegetables such as collards, turnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash and in the fatty tissues of plant-eating animals, imparts the yellow coloration to milk-fat and butter. Turmeric is used as an agent to impart a rich, custard-like yellow colour to dairy products and yogurt.

Synthetic astaxanthin is not approved for human consumption, but is permitted to be used in fish feed that humans ultimately eat. Astaxanthin is used to keep the flesh of farmed fish pink, no matter how diseased their bodies are.

Consumers like yellow yolks. But birds that don’t eat fresh grass, or see the sun, cannot produce eggs with yellow yolks. So egg producers put various dyes into the poultry feed. There are eight dyes registered as feed additives for poultry. Canthaxanthin is used here as well, even though, in 2007, the European Food Safety Authority established maximum residue limit as 30 milligrams/kg.

Illegal dyes are used as well in poultries. Sudan IV has been detected in hen and duck eggs. Sudan dyes are carcinogenic. Egg yolk yellow is also achieved with xanthophylls extracted from plants.

Cadmium is a yellow metal used in squid and cuttlefish.

Under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, colour additives may not be used to deceive consumers, or to conceal blemishes or inferiorities in food products. Usage is prohibited "if it is found to induce cancer when ingested” by people or animals.

Both these conditions are violated. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a 68-page report “ Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,” detailing the potential of artificial food dyes to contribute to hyperactivity in children, increase cancer risk and lead to other health problems. In CSPI's summary of studies on food dyes, some of the most commonly used food dyes could be linked to cancer. CSPI reported:

"The three most widely used dyes, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, are contaminated with known carcinogens. Another dye, Red 3, has been acknowledged for years by the Food and Drug Administration to be a carcinogen, yet is still in the food supply."

CSPI revealed that nine of the food dyes, currently approved for use in the United States, are linked to health issues ranging from cancer and hyperactivity to allergy-like reactions -- and these results were from studies conducted by the chemical industry itself.

As CSPI reported: "Almost all the toxicological studies on dyes were commissioned, conducted, and analyzed by the chemical industry and academic consultants. Ideally, dyes (and other regulated chemicals) would be tested by independent researchers.

In addition to considerations of organ damage, cancer, birth defects, and allergic reactions, mixtures of dyes (and Yellow 5 tested alone) cause hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in some children.

… Because of those toxicological considerations, including carcinogenicity, hypersensitivity reactions, and behavioral effects, food dyes cannot be considered safe. The FDA should ban food dyes, which serve no purpose other than a cosmetic effect…

In the meantime, companies voluntarily should replace dyes with safer, natural colorings." The UK Food Standards Agency commissioned a study at Southampton University of the effect of six food dyes (Tartrazine, Allura Red, Ponceau 4R, Quinoline Yellow WS, Sunset Yellow and Carmoisine)on children. Published in 2007, the study found "a possible link between the consumption of these artificial colours and a sodium benzoate preservative and increased hyperactivity"

Research suggests that some children may be susceptible to even tiny amounts of artificial dyes, but that a significant number of children were affected by amounts over 35 mg per day. It was estimated that many children are consuming 3-4 times the 35mg amount per day. Food colorants sometimes cause allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock in sensitive individuals. Even natural colouring agents can be potential hazards and include annatto, cochineal and carmine

An important study, published in the journal The Lancet in 2009, concluded that a variety of common food dyes, and the preservative sodium benzoate, cause some children to become measurably more hyperactive and distractible. The study also found that the E-numbered food dyes do as much damage to children's brains as lead in gasoline, resulting in a significant reduction in IQ. The results of this study were what prompted the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) to issue an immediate advisory to parents, warning them to limit their children's intake of additives if they notice an effect on behaviour. In July 2010, most foods in the EU that contain artificial food dyes were labelled with warning labels stating the food "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." No other country has done so. What food dyes are used in India? Does anyone know or care?

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

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