Food Coloring Regulations and Standards

In the past 100 years, the amount of food coloring used in food has increased drastically. This shift is due in part to manufacturers’ growing emphasis on making food look more appealing, last longer and attract as many consumers as possible. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) imposes strict regulations and standards for the approval of artificial food dyes and how food producers and manufacturers are permitted to use those dyes in their products.Learn more about food color standards established by the FDA, including what technology your business can use to operate within regulation.

What Is Food Coloring?

Food coloring and food dyes are chemical substances used to alter or enhance the appearance of a food product. Three color additives make up 90% of all used food dye — Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.

Using color additives or dyes is not a new technology. Natural food colors were used to color wine as early as 300 B.C. Early dye experimentation included naturally occurring color found in some spices and metal oxides, like saffron and copper sulfate.

The first synthetic organic dye — called mauve — was discovered in 1856. Mauve was the first of many discovered synthetic dyes produced via coal processing, earning them the title “coal-tar colors.” Federal regulation of color additives began a few decades later, in the 1880s.

What Is Food Coloring Made Of?

Artificial food coloring is derived from petroleum. There are three possible classifications for a food dye:

  • Straight colors: Straight colors are free from most impurities and have not been mixed or chemically altered with other substances.
  • Lakes: Lakes are the product of a chemical reaction that takes place after combining a straight color with precipitants or substrata of things like alumina, titanium dioxide and zinc.
  • Mixtures: Mixtures are made by combining a color additive with another color additive or a non-colored diluent, which produces no chemical reaction.

What Are the Dangers of Food Coloring?

There are many reasons manufacturers use food dyes in production. In addition to enhancing the appearance and helping some foods look more enticing, food colors can also help consumers identify what flavor a food product might be. That said, there is a reason the FDA implements strict regulations regarding artificial food coloring.

Since food dyes have become common in the food production industry, there has been debate about the harmful effects of artificial food colors. While FDA-approved food coloring is not labeled as dangerous, it is possible to have a rare allergic reaction to one or more food dyes. When discussing artificial food coloring dangers, one of the most significant concerns come from studies that demonstrate a connection between artificial food coloring and behavioral problems in young children, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Food Color Regulations and Standards

Food Color Regulations and Standards
To help limit the dangers of food coloring and ensure consumer safety, the FDA has a set of regulations and standards that all U.S. food manufacturers must abide by.

Common Foods With Food Dyes

The first foods ever to receive federal authorization for synthetic food color were butter and cheese in the 1880s. Since then, grocery stores are filled with foods containing both natural food colors and artificial food coloring, including the following products:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Candies
  • Ice cream
  • Condiments
  • Baked goods
  • Canned fruits
  • Processed vegetables

According to researchers at Purdue University, one of the most significant sources of food dye additives in the United States comes from beverages, including soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and flavored juices.

How to Meet FDA Standards

When adding synthetic food color, maintaining FDA compliance is essential. All dyes must be pre-approved by the FDA before manufacturers can use them in food, and each approved dye may not be used in any way other than the intended use stated on its listing. Some food colorings are also subject to a certification process. To meet FDA standards, you must take into account the identity of the substance, the specifications regarding its level of purity or other physical properties and the limitations associated with its conditions of use.

Always use safe and approved food additives. General labeling requirements state that each approved food dye label must include the following information:

  • The name of the straight color or each ingredient in a color mixture.
  • A statement listing the limitations for the color additive, such as “for food use only.”
  • The amount of each straight color in terms of weight per unit or volume, if applicable.
  • An expiration date, if required.

Before using any natural or synthetic food dyes, check the current status of that dye in the FDA color additives status list. Never use restricted or unauthorized food colorings. The FDA considers some colors exempt from certification because they are derived from natural sources — such as grape skin extract, which produces red and green, or pigment from dehydrated beets to produce a blue-red or brown color. Always consult the FDA’s list of color additives for approved use in human food before incorporating a dye into your production practices.

According to the FDA, food manufacturers must also:

  • Not use unsafe or unapproved color additives in food.
  • Not use unsafe or unapproved levels of color additives in food.
  • Not mislead the consumer through the use of food color additives.
  • Package all straight colors in properly sealed containers to protect the food product from changing composition.
  • List all food ingredients on the label, starting with the ingredient used in the greatest amount and descending.
  • List all FDA-certified color additives on the label, which you may label collectively as “artificial color added” or “color added” rather than naming each individual color additive.
  • List carmine and cochineal extract clearly on the label if used, due to potential allergic reactions.

Failing to meet FDA standards for food dyes puts consumers at risk and may result in incurred fines.

Devices That Measure Food Color

devices that measure food color
Visually assessing food products for correct color levels is not effective due to the number of external factors — such as different lighting or angles — that can interfere. To maintain FDA compliance and ensure you are producing a food product that is safe and appealing for the consumer, utilize food color measuring devices for a consistent reading.You can classify each food product as one of the following:

  • Opaque: Opaque foods — such as breakfast cereals, crackers and cheese — are measured entirely by reflected light.
  • Translucent: Translucent foods — including juices and jams — are usually either liquid or near-liquid in form and can be measured using either reflected or transmitted light, depending on the translucency of the sample.
  • Transparent: Transparent foods — like cooking oils and soft drinks — can be either liquid or semi-solid and measured via transmitted light.

Spectrophotometers are one method for measuring food color. These instruments measure a specimen’s transmittance and reflectance as a function of wavelength and provide a ratio of this reflected or transmitted light that you can compare to existing standards.

Different types of spectrophotometer instruments are available, depending on the kind of food you’re working with, its classification, its texture and its specific application. For example, some devices can measure food products with a glossy or textured finish, while others can conduct measurements without requiring any contact with the food product.

Learn More About HunterLab Product Applications

Built on a passion for seeking the truth and making a difference in the world around us, HunterLab is the global leader in spectrophotometer measurements. HunterLab technology can help you measure your food products with accuracy and consistency. Learn more about how HunterLab can help you measure food color in various applications, or contact us for more information today.