Are food colourings safe?

Health, Nutrition
junk food

30 years ago when my children were small I became concerned about the effect of colourings in food on their behaviour. I talked to other mums about this and was generally greeted with incredulity. They would say, “Manufacturers wouldn’t put things in our food that could be harmful” or “The government wouldn’t allow such a thing.”

In those distant days manufacturers were not obliged by law to list individual food colourings in the ingredients: it was enough just to say ‘colourings’. Requests from campaigning organisations, such as the Hyperactive Children’s Support Group, were fobbed off by manufacturers with the excuse that labels were too small to allow the inclusion of the list of actual colourings used. This excuse of the manufacturers disappeared when the list of European Community ‘E numbers’ was approved. Tartrazine became E102 and amaranth E123, and manufacturers legally had to include the name or the code for the food colouring on their products. The E number coding system dealt with the manufacturers apparently legitimate objection that there was not enough room on the label. However, by now the media was beginning to promote the idea that E numbers were bad for children. Concerned parents were scanning labels and avoiding anything with E numbers. Suddenly manufacturers found they did have enough room on the labels to list the names of the food colourings. They started using ‘tartrazine’ rather than the E number. Cynics would say that they did this so that uninformed parents would scan the ingredients list, not see and E numbers and assume that the product was OK.

At the same time ‘natural’ colourings began to be used more extensively in everyday products. These are made from fruit and vegetables. For example, E162 (beetroot red) is extracted from beetroot, and E160c (capsanthin) comes from paprika. At first sight this seems like an improvement as ‘natural’ is bound to be better than ‘artificial’, but it is not necessarily so, because industrial solvents are usually used in the extraction process. Hexane, acetone and other industrial solvents break down cell walls in the fruit and vegetables and allow for maximum extraction of the colouring. Residues of these often remain in the finished product, but they do not need to be declared on the product. This is because they are part of a group of substances known as carry-over ingredients.

Carry-over ingredients are substances used in the manufacturing process that do not serve any technological purpose in the finished product. As well as being used in the manufacture of natural colours, solvents are also used to mix artificial or natural colours more efficiently through the finished product. Anti-foaming agents may be present that were added to control the amount of foam produced during processing in fruit juice production and other processes. Anti-caking agents may be present in small quantities after being used to make sure powders do not clog machinery during the production process. Because the quantity in the finished product is so small, these carry over ingredients do not need to be listed on the wrapper for the finished product. Just because they do not have to be listed, does not mean they are safe for the consumer.

Without realising it we can be buying food products that contain a mixture of chemicals that may be detrimental to our health – we just don’t know. Many people will consume a whole range of different chemicals through the food they eat. These chemicals could interact adversely – we just don’t know. Because it is not easy to do this sort of research, doesn’t mean that there is no effect on our health.

Of course, one way round this is not to buy any processed foods at all, but that is unrealistic for most people. The odd bit of junk food is not going to harm most people, but a healthy and practical rule is to check the list of ingredients on the food you buy; choose products that contain ingredients that you recognise and would have in your kitchen if you did lots of home cooking.