Thursday, 18 July, 2024

Toxicology Of Food Colour

Prof. Dr. Shyam P Lohani


The food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe have a profound link with our health and thus wellbeing. The calories needed to keep our body vibrant and able to perform daily activities come from the food we eat. Nowadays, the significant proportions of those calories derived by our bodies are from processed food. To give visually stimulating and aesthetic looks, manufacturers use different colours to food products while manufacturing them. Considering people’s concern for their safety, the manufacturers should use only approved colours in food products being sold out at grocery stores and supermarkets. In recent times, there have been growing concerns among policymakers, regulatory agencies, food industries and consumers about food colour safety. Natural colours from vegetable and mineral sources are used to colour foods, drugs, and cosmetics from ancient times.
The food colour market is expected to reach around US$ 4.65 billion by 2024 at the current CAGR of 7.4 per cent (Meticulous Research, 2019). With the increasing demand for processed food products in those many emerging and developing countries in the world, Nepal cannot remain untouched about the use of colours in the processed food and its health-related issues. The market of food colours is categorised like natural, synthetic, and nature-identical; source such as plant, minerals, chemicals, microorganisms and animal; form such as liquid, powder, gel and emulsion; solubility for example water-based, gel-based, oil-based and emulsion-based; application viz. processed food products and beverages and lastly geography.

Growing Demand
As per the product type, natural food colour is accounting for the largest share of the market in 2019 mainly due to the growing health awareness among consumers and rising demand for chemical-free food products around the globe. Other factors that contribute to this share include the health benefits of natural food over conventional food and increasing vigilance of the government in favour of natural food colours. Based on the source, plant sources accounted for the largest share mainly due to the increasing use of colouring agents in different foodstuffs, beverages, and packaged food products. However, colours from animal origins are also increasing with a healthy rate of CAGR. Geographically, the current food colour market is dominated by European countries. However, Asian countries are expected to register the highest growth owing to the increasing demand for processed food products in the emerging and developing countries, including India, China, Indonesia, and Thailand.
The marketing of food products is greatly influenced by food colour. We feel serenely calm and at peace when surrounded by green fields and blue skies. At the same time, we feel slightly alarmed by the red colour at the traffic light. The traders and marketers even from ancient times have added different colours to their products to evoke human colour psyche and reactions. Different colours influence human beings differently. Red colour creates a sense of urgency so is used to clear stock; yellow and orange colours promote optimism; blue is the preferred colour of man and symbolises peace, tranquility and reliability; green associated with peace, tranquility, and nature; purple associated with royalty, wisdom, and respect; black related to authority, power, stability and strength; gray symbolises practicality, old age and solidarity, and white associated with purity, cleanliness, and safety. The colour psychology has huge influence on consumers. Therefore, colours are used for product marketing and soliciting an increased sale. However, there are only a few colours that are used in food products, beverages, and confectionaries.

It is said that we eat with our eyes. Thus, the colour is important but even all-natural colours are not safe to eat and, of course, many artificial colours are toxic to human health. According to consumers’ perspective, food colouring should be as natural as possible; however, there is no standard for said naturalness. Furthermore, natural does not necessarily mean edible. In general, food colours are regulated either as food additives or GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) ingredients. They are required to undergo and pass very same safety and toxicity standard by regulatory agencies throughout the world. However, standards and regulations vary from country to country.
The food colours such as Blue #1 (Brilliant Blue) is used in baked goods, candy, cereal, and beverages are suspected to cause chromosomal damage and banned in France and Finland. The Blue #2(Indigo Carmine) is used in beverages, candy, and dog food and implicated to cause brain tumors banned in Norway; Red#2 (Citrus) is found in orange peel and may cause bladder tumors and banned in US food processing; Green #3 (Fast Green) is used in beverages, candy, and ice-cream and implicated for bladder tumors and banned in European economic communities. The Red #40 (Allura Red) commonly used in baked products, candy, cereals, and beverages is potential to cause chromosomal damage, hyperactivity and lymphomas; Red #3 (Erythrosine) found in baked items, candy, sausage, and maraschinos is associated with neurochemical and behavioural effects, chromosomal damage and thyroid tumors for which FDA tried to ban but failed.
The food colour Yellow #5 (Tartrasine) commonly used in baked products, candy, cereals, and beverages is implicated for asthma, insomnia, allergies, chromosomal damage, hyperactivity, aggression and violent activity, neurochemical and behavioural effects, lymphomas and thyroid tumors and is banned in Norway. The food colour Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow) used in baked products, sausages, and cereals and is the potential to cause asthma, eczema, hives, hyperactivity, allergies, chromosomal damage, and thyroid tumors and is banned in Norway and Sweden.

The consumers have growing concern about the safety of some of the legally used food colorants and food industries trying to replace the synthetic colours with natural ones. However, natural dyes do not have concentrated colour as synthetic dyes thus more amount must be used which may interfere with the taste and also they are more sensitive to heat, so colour may vary among products from different batches. Also, there are reports that a couple of artificial as well as natural dyes with known or suspected genotoxic or carcinogenic properties are added illegally to foods. At present, the Department of Food Technology and Quality Assurance (DFTQC) of the Government of Nepal is responsible as a regulatory agency for food colouring. The DFTQC is recommended to develop robust monitoring programmes based on reliable detection methods which will assure consumers that the food they are consuming is free from harmful colours.

(Prof. Lohani is the Clinical Director of the Nepal Drug and Poison Information Centre and can be reached at