A guide to food colouring

guide to food colouring

It is often said that we eat with our eyes, making colour one of the most important factors for judging the quality of a food product.

Colouring foods dates back centuries; a technique used by our ancestors to make morsels more appealing and enhance its perceived quality. For example, the characteristic yellow hue of rice was obtained by adding saffron. By the end of the 19th century, in the USA and Europe, the use of colour additives in the food industry was an ingrained habit with popular products such as ketchup, mustard and sodas featuring artificial colourants like cochineal (E 120), tartrazine (E 102) and caramel IV (E 150d), respectively on their labels. The use of synthetic dyes rapidly increased due to their lower costs, ease of production, and greater colouring strength and stability compared to natural-derived additives. However, with time, safety concerns mounted and artificial colourants became a hotly debated topic.

Consequently, they were gradually replaced by more natural colourants derived from plants and insects, although the use of chemicals, such as organic solvents (eg, methanol, hexane), is still commonplace during production. As a result, the ‘naturalness’, sustainability and healthiness of the resulting product can be disputed. Today, consumers are demanding clean labels (without additives) and sustainable food products. As such, colouring foods represent a promising alternative to colour additives. 

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