How to know Safe from Unsafe Food Colouring

Life in Technicolor to the detriment of our health.

Food colours are tricky. Many people, kids and adults, react to colourings, and you shouldn’t let the word “natural” fool you..

Finding the balance between fun and tempting foods, and safety from allergic reactions and intolerances can be a challenge. I’m sure many parents with sensitive kids can relate to that challenge, and many of those who don’t have allergies might still want to avoid the artificial nasties for other reasons.

The information I am using for this post is based upon the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital’s guide for food intolerances. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the RAPH Elimination (or Failsafe) Diet, there’s lots of great information to be found on http://www.fedup.com.au. Just to give you the basics, here are some key points:

  • In short, chemicals in food and additives (natural or artificial) are known to cause a myriad of symptoms that cannot otherwise be explained in terms of an “illness”. Traditionally we are familiar with food allergies, which are immune responses to a specific part of a food, usually a protein, prompting the body to treat the food as “toxic” and thereby causing a reaction. Food intolerances however are different. They are a chemical reaction to an element in a food or a food group, such as salicylatesamines or similar. Intolerances and allergies can overlap, but they are not the same issue.
  • Although symptoms can be very similar, only allergies can be instantly life threatening.
  • We might assume that food intolerances cause only symptoms like stomach upset or headaches, but they can in fact also be responsible for a wide range of other symptoms. Children with behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, aggression, irritability or concentration issues may find that they are intolerant to food chemicals. If your child struggles with any of these symptoms, then you might want to talk to your physician about the possibility of investigating food sensitivities.
  • An allergic reaction usually occurs soon after the food is consumed, whereas an intolerance reaction can be immediate or build up over some time. In fact, certain intolerances will only produce symptoms when you have consumed a certain quantity of the given food chemical, and symptoms may be quite delayed and last for some time.

Here is an infographic that shows some of the elements involved(click on the image to enlarge):

The Failsafe diet isn’t colourful.

I have been on the so-called Failsafe Diet for many months now, and one element that certainly sets this diet apart from a “normal” diet is the blatant lack of colour. All the food is white, very pale green or light yellow. Not much to please the eye in other words. I have just recently been “upgraded” to the moderate Failsafe diet, and suddenly my food is starting to regain its luster. There’s carrot, red cabbage and banana. I’m ecstatic!

But, even though I can have carrots for dinner again, I still have to mind food colourings. There’s an extensive list of food additives to avoid when on a Failsafe diet, and colours (even natural) are on that list. However, there are some loopholes in this bland equation.. there are a few colours that are natural, chemical-free, and not listed on the checklist.

(Nb: please consult your physician before adding any new foods to your diet if you are on a failsafe plan. The strict elimination diet should ideally be colour free.)

Safe food colours

I have searched high and low to find ways of adding colour to my baked goods. Especially now, with Christmas coming up, I would so very much like to see a bit of red and green, perhaps even some cute little sprinkles! I had thought of making my own colours with red cabbage and carrot. I remember my mother dying eggs for easter with cabbage when I was little, and when I make carrot juice I always stain my bench beyond repair.. You’d think I could add those to icing and get a brilliant result!

Having filtered out quite an amount of brands, I have in the end found 4 wonderful and beautiful food colours that I can safely have on my Moderate Failsafe diet. I will share those with you shortly, but first a list of the ones that are not ok:

Unsafe food colours

Unsafe food colours

The Royal Prince Alfred Hospital’s Elimination diet (Failsafe diet) is aimed at uncovering intolerances to chemicals in foods or additives. The food colourings listed are those who are likely to cause reactions in sensitive people. They are even banned in some countries. The list is as follows:

(information collected from wikipedia.com, RAPH elimination diet handbook, and fedup.com.au)

Artificial colours:

Yellows:

102, also known as  E102, C.I. 19140, FD&C Yellow 5, Acid Yellow 23, Food Yellow 4, and Trisodium 1-(4-sulfonatophenyl)-4-(4-sulfonatophenylazo)-5-pyrazolone-3-carboxylate).

  • Known to cause allergic reactions and asthma, as well as a variety of immunological responses including anxiety, migraine, clinical depression, blurred vision, itching, general weakness, heat waves, feeling of suffocation, purple skin patches and sleep disturbance. Even at extremely small doses, symptoms can last for periods up to 72 hours after exposure. There are also supposed links to thyroid tumors, chromosomal damage and hyperactivity.
  • Tartrazine is a commonly used colour all over the world, mainly for yellow, but can also be used with Brilliant Blue FCF (FD&C Blue 1, E133) or Green S (E142) to produce various green shades.

107, also known as Yellow 2G.

  • Banned in Austria, Norway, Switzerland, USA, Japan and Sweden.
  • Known to cause allergic reactions, asthma attacks and problems in hyperactive children.

110, also known as Orange Yellow S, FD&C Yellow 6 or C.I. 15985Reds: 122-129.

  • Derived from petroleum, and may be responsible for causing a allergic reactions in people with an aspirin intolerance, resulting in various symptoms including gastric upset, diarrhea, vomiting, nettle rash (urticaria), swelling of the skin (angioedema) and migraines. Also known to cause reactions in hyperactive children.

Blues: 

131, also called Patent Blue V,  Food Blue 5, Sulphan Blue, Acid Blue 3, L-Blau 3, C-Blau 20, E 131, Patentblau V, or Cl 42051132.

  • Banned in Australia and USA
  • May cause allergic reactions, with symptoms ranging from itching and nettle rash, tonausea, hypotension, and in rare cases anaphylactic shock.

132, also known as Indigo carmine, 5,5′-indigodisulfonic acid sodium salt, indigotine or FD&C Blue #2.

  • Approved as a food dye in the EU and the USA
  • Indigo Carmine in it’s chemical form is harmful to the respiratory tract if inhaled, and it’s an irritant to skin and eyes. Proper laboratory cautions are advised when handling the substance. Known to cause behavioural problems in sensitive children.

Green: 

142, also known as Green S.

  • Banned in Canada, US, Japan and Norway.
  • May cause allergic reactions and is one of the colorants that the Hyperactive Children’s Support Group recommends to be eliminated from the diet of children.

Black: 

151, also known as Brilliant Black BN, Brilliant Black PN, Brilliant Black A, Black PN, Food Black 1, Naphthol Black, C.I. Food Brown 1, or C.I. 28440

  • Banned in the United States, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Japan and Finland, but approved in Australia and New Zealand and the European Union. It was banned in Norway until 2001 when it was unbanned due to trade relationships with other countries.
  • Causes allergic or intolerance reactions, particularly amongst those with an aspirin intolerance. It is a histamine liberator, and may worsen the symptoms of asthma

Browns: 

154, also called Kipper Brown, Chocolate Brown FK, and C.I. Food Brown 1

  • It is one of the colourants that the Hyperactive Children’s Support Group recommends be eliminated from the diet of children. It can provoke allergic reactions in people sensitive to salicylates, and can intensify the symptoms of asthma.
  • Banned in the European Union (but was allowed to colour kippers to produce orange kippers), Australia, Austria, Canada, United States, Japan, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway and Russia.

155, also called Brown HT, Chocolate Brown HT, Food Brown 3, and C.I. 20285.

  • May provoke allergic reactions in asthmatics, people sensitive to aspirin and other sensitive individuals, and may induce skin sensitivity.  The Hyperactive Children’s Support Group recommends it be eliminated from the diet of children.
  • Banned in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, United States, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden.

Natural colours:

Cochineal 120, also known as carmine or carminic acid, colour (E120), cochineal, carmine (not to be confused with artificial colours carmoisine 122 or indigo carmine 132), cochineal carmine, or colour index (CI 75470)

  • Made from the bodies of dried pregnant scale insects which feed on cacti in Central America. An extract from the cochineal insects is combined with aluminium to form carminic acid, also known as carmine.
  • There are rare but increasing reports of true allergic reactions – including urticaria, asthma, vomiting, diarrhoea and anaphylaxis – to the proteins in the insects. Read more on the Food Intolerance Network.

Anatto 160B, also known as roucou or achiote.  In the United States, annatto extract is listed as a colour additive “exempt from certification”.

  • The Food Intolerance Network states that it is the only natural colour that has so far been found to cause as many adverse intolerance reactions as artificial colours, and to affect more consumers that artificial colours. It has also been associated with rare allergic reactions. Adverse reactions to annatto can include skin, gastrointestinal, airways and central nervous system reactions, headaches, irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbance, as well as arthritis. Read more about Annatto here.

Important: Quite often the numbers aren’t actually listed in the ingredients. Instead the names are used, and it can be any of the names above.

These colours are not only used in obvious products like a green lolly or blue icing. They can also be found in gravy, fish, toothpaste, make-up, alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, breads and cakes.. you name it. We are practically surrounded by ingredients of more or less natural origin that are there for one purpose only: to improve the look of mother natures products.

It may seem a bit hopeless then, having to let go of all the colour in our lives. But guess what, there are real, natural and safe colours available that most of us can still tolerate despite allergies and intolerances!

Beautiful Safe Food Colours

There are safe options!

I’d like to share with you some fantastic and safe food colouring options that I have found. I’ve discovered several colours that are not only safe, but vibrant and gorgeous!

My mother used to say: if you can’t pronounce it don’t eat it. With the exception of Asian food, I think she makes a good point.

For failsafers: I’d like to point out that concentrated natural colours can be high in salicylates, amines and glutamates. They should be used with caution, and possibly tested/challenged before you introduce them into a failsafe diet. Always consult your health professional. If you are on a strict elimination diet, I do not recommend adding any colours to your food!)

The only colours listed as absolutely failsafe are the following:

  • 101       Riboflavin, lactoflavin, vitamin B2, yellow
  • 160a     Beta-carotene 
  • 170       Calcium carbonate, mineral colour and calcium supplement
  • 171       Titanium dioxide, mineral colour, white
  • 172       Iron oxide, red, black, yellow mineral colours
  • 173       Aluminium, mineral colour
  • 174       Silver, mineral colour
  • 175       Gold, mineral colour
  • 153       Carbon black, vegetable carbon
  • 150a     Caramel I – plain
  • 150b     Caramel II – caustic sulphite process
  • 150c     Caramel III – ammonia process
  • 150d     Caramel IV – ammonia sulphite process
    Nb: Always check if caramel colours are gluten free!

The brands I’ve found:

My absolute favourite is Hopper natural food colours. This product has no names you can’t pronounce, no numbers and scary “E’s”. They are literally made from every-day fruits, berries and vegetables such as carrot, sweet potato, blackcurrant and spirulina!

Some people can of course be allergic or intolerant to certain fruits and vegetables, and you must always check the label to see if a product is safe for you. But if you can have carrots and pumpkin, you can have, say, the “Cloudy Orange” colour that I used on my gingerbread cookies. And if you can have blackcurrant, you can use the purple. It’s as easy as that!

Some of these colours will be ok on a moderate  elimination diet even!

Here’s their chart of available colours, all listed with ingredients (you can click the image for a detailed view):

Hopper's natural food colours

Hopper’s natural food colours

All of Hopper’s products are Gluten, Dairy, Egg, Nut and Soy Free – with no artificial colours or flavours and no 120 (sulfites; preservative).

Hopper even has sprinkles (110’s & 1000’s) that are failsafe or allergy friendly (depending on the colours). I bought myself some lovely white sprinkles to decorate my Christmas cookies, and I love that I am able to do that.

Failsafe 100's & 1000's (sprinkles)

Failsafe 100’s & 1000’s (sprinkles)

I have tried Hopper’s “Cloudy Orange” and “Cherry Red”. Both colours came out strong and vibrant. My test cookies both have the same beautiful colours two days later (with cookies laying uncovered on the bench in bright sunlight, high humidity and heat), and I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am by the quality of this product.

The only draw-back is that the colours have to be kept in the fridge or freezer, but at the end of the day that only shows you that the product is natural!

I also found two other beautiful and safe colours:

The first one is Queen’s Yellow Natural Colour which is Lutein derived from the flower Marigold.

Safe Natural Colours

Lutein has the number 161b. Wikipedia says: “Lutein is a natural part of human diet when fruits and vegetables are consumed. For individuals lacking sufficient lutein intake, lutein-fortified foods are available, or in the case of elderly people with a poorly absorbing digestive system, asublingual spray is available. As early as 1996, lutein has been incorporated into dietary supplements. While no recommended daily allowance currently exists for lutein as for other nutrients, positive effects have been seen at dietary intake levels of 6–10 mg/day.The only definitive side effect of excess lutein consumption is bronzing of the skin (carotenodermia)”

Lutein is however banned as a food colourant in the US, but is allowed for use elsewhere. I have not been able to find out exactly why it isn’t used in the USA, because all sources seem to only positive effects of this substance,but I would be very interested to know if anyone has the information.

Lutein is allowed on a failsafe diet using caution.

This product produces a beautiful, strong yellow colour, and two days later my test cookies are still bright yellow. It has darkened somewhat, but not fade has occurred.

I have also tried Queen’s Green Colour Extract, which is made from copper-chlorophyllin.

Safe Food Colours

I wasn’t able to find much info on the substance, but have learnt that the green colour is derived from the natural chlorophyl in plants, and thus is of natural origin. To transform this into a suitable colourant it does go through a chemical process, but nothing that causes any contamination to the product. Hence it is classified as a “natural chemical”. The only country that doesn’t use copper-chlorophyllin as a food colourant is the USA, however they do allow it in citrus beverages. I was curious as to why it has such a limited usage, and checked with the FDA. The FDA states:

“FDA concludes that the [..] use of sodium copper chlorophyllin as a color additive in citrus-based dry beverage mixes is safe, the additive will achieve its intended technical effect, and thus, it is suitable for this use. [..] In addition [..] FDA concludes that certification of sodium copper chlorophyllin is not necessary for the protection of the public health.”

So it seems that the FDA have simply decided that certification is unnecessary, and hence it is not banned.

This product gives a deep, beautiful green, one that hasn’t faded during this test. It has however darkened a bit, but it is still beautiful.

Copper-chlorophyllin is allowed on a failsafe diet using caution.

Once again, although these products aren’t listed as prohibited on the elimination diet list over food additives, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you personally can’t have a reaction. If you do have sensitivities, please confer with your health professional before adding any new products to your diet.

I’d like to emphasise that the two other colours in the liquid “Natural Colour” range from Queen did not pass the “test”, so be careful not to confuse them. Both the Pink and the Red contain substances that are on the list over unsafe colours.

However, their powdered pink gets it colour from Beetroot Juice Concentrate (162), and their powdered yellow from turmeric (100). Colour from turmeric is allowed on the failsafe diet, used with caution, and it is safe for the rest of us.

I haven’t tried either of these two products so I can’t vouch for the results, but I thought it worth a mention.

Safe food colouringsafe food coloursLastly I have found a site called Hullaballoo Food that also sells safe natural colours, like this one:

Safe food colours

There are several colours available, and much like the Hopper Natural Food colours they are derived from fruits and vegetables. The one on the picture is red, and made from blackcurrant, radish and apple, but they have several others too. They also sell failsafe white sprinkles under the label “Gold”.

I hope this has been a helpful post, and that you might now brighten up your baking with some safe but wonderful colours!

For anyone who might be interested in the Failsafe/ Elimination diet (kids with behavioral problems or adults with various “unexplainable” symptoms or tummy issues that won’t resolve): I highly recommend the website http://www.fedup.com.au – The absolute best resource I have found on the topic!

I am constantly on the look-out for new wonderful products, so if you know of any other safe food colourings then please share! Also, if you have any further information, experiences or viewpoints on safe or unsafe food colourings, then I would love to hear from you!

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2 Comments on “How to know Safe from Unsafe Food Colouring

  1. What a fabulous blog! So, so informative and full of very useful info. I am a celiac and do my very best to stay away from gluten, but never thought that my migraines might be caused by chemical intolerances. Thanks so much for this column.

    Like

  2. Wow, Kristine, what a well researched and informative article! You could publish a version of this somewhere, I bet.

    On the rare occasion when I use artificial food coloring, I close my eyes (metaphorically) and try not to think too hard about what my family is eating. But really, I should do more research because all those chemicals are terrifying.

    As for why lutein is not allowed in the US, I don’t know and I’m pretty sure it makes no intellectual sense since so much horrible stuff IS allowed in food and cosmetics. They probably just don’t lobby hard enough, ha. Or not ha. It’s really terrible what we unwittingly consume. But thanks to posts like yours, it will be easier to determine what is safe and what is not.

    Thanks again Kristine! And please do enjoy those gorgeously iced cookies 🙂
    -Dana

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