Ever since the dawn of times, people have tried to experiment with food and alter natural ingredients in a way that would both enhance their taste and make them visually more pleasing. Food dyes are a type of additives that emerged in the process of manipulating food. They are defined as pigments or substances that impart color when added to food or drink. Some techniques of food dying were known to humankind since ancient times, but it was not until the early 20th century that it was decided to pass actual regulations to prevent producers from using harmful ingredients for food coloring. This shift was explained by the scientific advancements that allowed people to extend the array of coloring substances past strictly natural ones and add artificial dyes. In the US, the Food and Drug Acts were passed and amended numerous times during the 20th century as the new food dyes required intense scrutiny before making them fully legal. This paper will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of food dyes and examine possible health threats of this type of additives.
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Food Color and Perception
The growing popularity of exotic cuisines and fast food demonstrate that consumers’ expectations gravitate towards diverse experiences. They do not want to settle for bland and boring foods – instead, they prefer products that are not only nourishing but also have intense taste and flavor. Interestingly enough, it is possible to manipulate a person’s perception of food by adding dyes that intensify or change its color. In his review, Spence explains that several studies have shown an association between coloring and food perception (21). For instance, the participants of one study reported improved experiences with chicken broth and chocolate pudding after food dyes were added as opposed to their counterparts that were less intense in color (Spence 21). Thus, food dyes make the process of eating complete and improve consumers’ satisfaction.
Apart from being aesthetically pleasing, colored foods can even present a dietary advantage over their alternatives sans additives. Spence argues that manipulating the color of a product can enhance its perceived sweetness by 10% (21). This finding implies that the food industry could entertain putting less sugar in food but adding food dyes to retain the perceived taste. This could supposedly help people who struggle with being overweight and addicted to sugar. They would not have to pass on their favorite desserts and would still make a healthy choice.
Food Color and Marketing
In general, colors are an integral part of humans’ complex and intricate experience with their most cherished staple foods. When a person shops for groceries or takes a look through a pantry or a refrigerator, he or she already has set expectations for what the most popular products should look like. Color perception impact choice and appetite and consequently can even change the way a consumer evaluates the taste and flavor of food. Spence argues that there is an ample body of scientific evidence that shows how a person’s experience of taste is determined to a large extent by the expectation that he or she generates prior to tasting (21). Their mind picks up on many cues, including branding, packaging, labeling, smell, and color. Since the human brain does not like dealing with uncertainty, coloring helps to make feasible predictions and relieve anxiety over trying a new product (Spence 21). Hence, food dyes help consumers level their expectations and introduce themselves to unfamiliar foods without unnecessary stress.
The previous point allows one to conclude that food coloring is a powerful marketing tool that helps attract customers, market a new product, and build a brand identity. Sliburyte and Skeryte claim that colors in food dyes can help to establish emotional links between a consumer and a product which may result in increased loyalty and improved sales (471). However, it should be noted that while the described phenomenon presents an undeniable advantage for producers, consumers can find themselves impulse buying foods merely based on their appearance as well as spending more time shopping than usual (Sliburyte and Skeryte 471). In summation, food dyes can help a customer navigate the food market based on his or her expectations and a sense of familiarity. Companies, in turn, can gain a competitive advantage by adding color and making their products more eye-catching and attractive.
Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder
There is a good reason why the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) oversees production and use of food dyes. Ramesh and Muthuraman argue that there is a certain association between the increased use of food colorants and the elevated rates of ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) in children (22). ADHD is a condition that prevents an affected individual from controlling his or her behavior impulses and concentrating on the task at hand (Ramesh and Muthuraman 22). According to the most recent statistics, in the United States, 9.5% of children have ADHD (Ramesh and Muthuraman 22).
Ramesh and Muthuraman describe a study by McCann et al. conducted in 2007 that showed that a reduction in the use of food colorants could help children to handle ADHD symptoms better and even relieve some of them. The study focused on six particular food colorants: tartrazine, Allura red, ponceau 4R, quinoline yellow WS, sunset yellow, and carmoisine (Ramesh and Muthuraman 22). However, the findings were not taken seriously by the National Institute of Health (NIH), and the institution did not recommend the dietary modifications for treating ADHD. The findings of more recent studies were inconclusive and did not show a significant positive relationship between food colorants and the onset and development of ADHD.
Carcinogenicity and Carotenosis
One of the adverse health effects of food dyes is their carcinogenicity, or cancer formation promotion. Ramesh and Muthuraman argue that some of the most common food coloring agents – Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 – that are used in a wide range of products are filled with carcinogens (23). The authors cite other recent studies in animals and microbiology that have provided clear evidence that Red 3 dye may cause cancer but is still used in food production (Ramesh and Muthuraman 23). Another unwanted health effect, carotenosis, is caused by excessive ingestion of carrot juice, yellow oranges, and β-carotene supplements. Carotenosis is a pathological condition characterized by visible orange discoloration of the outermost skin level, usually affecting nose, palms, and feet (Ramesh and Muthuraman 23). A reduction in dietary intake of β-carotene supplements helps to tackle the overloading and with time, give the skin back its normal color with no adverse side effects in the long perspective.
Excessive consumption of colored food can lead to allergic reactions, namely, skin rashes and watering eyes. Ramesh and Muthuraman report that such widely used carminic acid and carmine can lead to severe allergic reactions, asthma, dermatitis, and anaphylactic responses (23). According to the FDA standards, consumers who would like to buy food products, drugs, and cosmetics containing cochineal extract or powder need to be able to make an informed decision. To ensure this, producers need to label the packaging of foods to facilitate the consumers’ identifications. Apart from cochineal extract, Yellow 5 commonly added to candy, canned vegetables, cheese, ice cream, ketchup, and hot dogs is another allergen. It was reported that ingestion of large quantities of Yellow 5 could cause hives and swelling (Ramesh and Muthuraman 23). Therefore, it is imperative to check labels before buying a product to avoid an allergic reaction that can vary from mild to even lethal.
Nowadays, coloring food agents are widely used in the food industry. This tendency is controversial since food dyes present both threats and benefits that need to be carefully weighed against each other and evaluated. Often, food coloring is used to increase consumers’ satisfaction with a product. Buyers have certain expectations as to how food is supposed to look and gravitate towards bright and appetizing colors. Moreover, certain shades and colors add to the experience by intensifying the perception of taste and flavor. By using food dyes, companies build a brand identity and create a strong presence in the food market. However, the widespread use of coloring food agents raises health concerns. Various studies have shown that some food dyes promote cancer formation, lead to carotenosis, and cause allergic reactions ranging from mild to severe. There is some evidence that excessive consumption of food colorants can contribute to the development of ADHD in children; however, this hypothesis may need further research.
Ramesh, Muthusamy, and Arunachalam Muthuraman. “Chapter 1 – Flavoring and Coloring Agents: Health Risks and Potential Problems.” Handbook of Food Bioengineering, 2018, pp. 1-28.
Sliburyte, Laimona, and Ilona Skeryte. “What We Know About Consumers’ Color Perception.” Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 156, 2014, pp. 468-472.
Spence, Charles. “On the Psychological Impact of Food Colour.” Flavour, vol. 4, no. 1, 2015, p. 21.