Orange: Real & Artificial

Baked Sweet Potato Fries
Baked Sweet Potato Fries – 2 Guiding Stars

This time of year, we see orange foods all around us. We associate orange with autumn, and also with energy and vibrancy. Of course, we know that some of our favorite orange foods come by their color naturally (although there are some instances where might be fooled—more on that later). Other foods we know are colored somehow to appear orange. This is a little primer on the various ways that foods can acquire their orangey hue—and why those methods may impact your food selection criteria. 

Natural Food Coloring

Natural substances have brought color to items since ancient times. Spices, vegetable skins, and even insects convey colors that humans admire in their foods and cosmetics. After all, who likes blah-looking food products? We like bright colors, and colors that help us associate flavors with colors (like cherry with red-colored foods).

As I explained in a previous post, Mother Nature provides us with a rainbow of colored foods. If you’re looking for orange this month (and maybe next), befriend carotenoids. Carotenoids are yellow, orange, and red plant pigments that give orange fruits and veggies their cheery colors. Beta-carotene, likely the most common, gives pumpkins and sweet potatoes their orange color. Since beta-carotene is a fat soluble compound, it’s used in foods that have a high fat content (e.g., margarine, cheese, etc). 

Artificial Colors in the U.S.

Synthetic food dyes have colored food in the United States since 1850s. Back then, the colors were created from coal tar. They are now typically derived from petroleum. (The finished coloring is tested to make sure that no trace of the original petroleum is present.) Although federal oversight of coloring additives began in the 1880s, by 1900 many foods, drugs and cosmetics were artificially colored. The need for some specific regulations to protect consumer safety resulted in the 1906 Food and Drugs Act. The act prohibited using colors to conceal damage or spoilage. Unfortunately, it didn’t go far enough. The 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act added protections against misbranding, adulteration, and toxic products.

In 1950, many children became ill from eating an orange Halloween candy that contained Orange No.1, a color additive that had been approved for food. At that point, the FDA reevaluated all color additives it had previously approved. It found several that were, in fact, dangerous; those were removed from the list. The 1960 Color Additive Amendments defined what a “color additive” was. It required that only those listed as “suitable and safe” for a specific use could be used in foods, drugs, cosmetics, or medical devices. The “Delaney Clause,” named for Representative James Delaney who pushed the investigation of additives’ carcinogenic effects, prohibited including carcinogenic colorings on the list of colors allowed for interim use.

Orange by Another Name

FD&C Yellow No. 6, also known as Sunset Yellow, is an artificial orange color. It was approved as part of the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. It is one of only 9 synthetic food colors granted approval for widespread use in food in the US. Along with Red 40 and Yellow 5, Sunset Yellow makes up 90% of the dyes used in foods. You’re apt to find Yellow 6 in candies, preserved fruits, baked goods, beverages, and sauces.

One of the approved dyes is not used in the food, rather, it’s on the food—specifically oranges. Did you know the Florida orange industry is allowed by the FDA to enhance the orange color of ripe but not-quite-orange-enough oranges? It’s a synthetic dye called Citrus Red #2, and it’s only used on the skins of the oranges. If you want to avoid it, buy oranges grown in California or Arizona, where growers do not use it. 

Do artificial colors cause real health problems?

The safety of artificial colorings has been researched extensively. Much of it focuses on children, as food marketed toward kids tends to contain more synthetic dyes than foods for adults. You may have heard about a purported link between food dyes and hyperactivity. Here’s the story in brief: In the 1970s, a pediatric allergist claimed there was a link between artificial food coloring and hyperactivity in children. Although there was very little evidence to back up the assertion back then, many studies have been conducted on this topic in the 50 years since. While some studies seem to show an association between food dyes and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, colors are not considered a direct cause of the condition.

Despite the findings of a 2020 systematic assessment of FDA-certified colors on neurodevelopmental processes, which concluded that food colors do not impact the brain activity that is indicative of hyperactivity, this topic is most certainly not closed. This year, the state of California also completed a review of the potential neurobehavioral effects of synthetic food dyes in children. They concluded that data from multiple types of studies do provide support that some synthetic food dyes impact neurobehavior (inattentiveness, hyperactivity and restlessness) in children, and that children vary in their sensitivity to the dyes. The most evidence was found for Red No.3, Red No.40 and Yellow No.5, but those colors have also been the subject of more studies. 

Getting Back to Nature

The per capita intake of food colorings in the U.S. has risen five-fold since the 1950s. This tracks along with increased consumption of processed foods and beverages, certainly. This clues us in on how to easily avoid artificial colorings. Some of the artificial dyes used in the U.S. are banned in other countries (and vice versa). And in the UK, foods that contain artificial colorings must carry a warning label.

In the UK, coloring foods with natural alternatives has been encouraged for years. Food companies largely comply. Why haven’t US companies followed suit? Well, some already have. More brands are bailing on synthetic food dyes all the time, but the low cost of synthetic dyes is obviously attractive to food manufacturers. Until the FDA forbids the use of artificial colors in foods (especially those aimed at children), there is little incentive for manufacturers to find alternatives ways to color their products. 

Guiding Stars & Artificial Food Colors

Taking into account the evolving science around the safety of artificial colors, as well as the fact that synthetic food dyes present no nutritional or health benefit, the Guiding Stars scientific advisory panel (SAP) decided to include a debit of one star for items containing artificial colors in the 2018 update of the algorithm. Although artificial colors are not currently included in any national nutrition policies in the U.S., Guiding Stars aims to serve consumers through the thoughtful evaluation of scientific research pertaining to food and health.

The growing indication of the need for caution regarding food dyes (especially for children), combined with the option of utilizing widely available natural food dyes, led to the SAP’s decision. It’s our intent to add the Guiding Stars voice to the increasing national call for food manufacturers to shift to safer food coloring options.