Making life taste better

Colours

Food colours

Many natural food colours degrade over time or when they are heated. This is one of the main reasons why colour ingredients are needed.

The colour of our food is an intrinsic part of its appeal. Colours contribute to the taste sensation, whether they are the bright colours we associate with many fruit and vegetables, or the lurid reds and yellows common in Indian dishes. Grey colours give the impression that a food will be tasteless, or even spoiled.

Colour is one of the many facets that food manufacturers have to consider when they Many natural food colours degrade over time or when they are heated. This is one of the main reasons why colour ingredients are needed.are creating food products. Many natural food colours degrade over time or when they are heated, and they need to ensure that the products remain attractive and look edible throughout their life on the shelf. This is one of the main reasons why colour ingredients are needed.

There are three main categories of food colourings: natural colours, browning colours, and artificial colours. The current trend in the market is towards a greater use of natural colours.

Natural colours

Natural colours are extracted and purified directly from nature. The most important natural colours are chlorophyll, carotenoids and flavonoids, which include anthocyanins.

Chlorophyll (E140) is the green pigment present in most plants, and is a vital part of the photosynthesis process by which they get their energy. It is extracted commercially from crops such as alfalfa and grass.

beta-Carotene (E160a) and the other carotenes are yellow-orange pigments found in fruit and vegetables like carrots, mango, papaya and squash. beta-Carotene can be extracted commercially from carrots or palm oil, but is mainly produced synthetically, and is converted into vitamin A in the body. It is also an antioxidant, and may have a beneficial effect in reducing the risk of some cancers and heart disease.

Annatto (E160b) is extracted from the achiote tree, which grows in the American tropics. Its colour derives from the two carotenoids, the fat-soluble bixin, which is red, and water-soluble norbixin, which share its E-number. It is used as an orange food colouring in products such as cheese, butter, custard powder and smoked fish. Annatto is unusual among natural food colourings as it has been associated with asthma-type side-effects, which are more commonly attributed to synthetic colours.

Lycopene (E160d) is a another carotenoid. The dark red chemical can be extracted from tomatoes, and is also present in a variety of other red and yellow fruit, as well as being produced synthetically using microorganisms. It is another strong antioxidant, and may help protect the body against degenerative diseases.

Lutein (E161b), another carotenoid which occurs naturally in maize and marigolds, has an orange-red colour. Its primary use as a food colorant is in chicken feed, where it gives a darker yellow yolk, and also yellower chicken skin. It is also believed to be important in eye health.

Anthocyanins (E163) are a group of water-soluble pigments whose colour varies from red to purple. They are widespread throughout the plant kingdom, and are responsible for the red and purple colours of fruit and vegetables such as blackcurrants, red grapes, aubergines and beetroot. However, they are prone to decomposing and losing their characteristic colour on heating, and in acidic conditions.

Browning colours

Browning colours are produced during cooking and processing.

Caramel (E150) is the most familiar browning colour. It is made by the caramelisation of sugars, and the colour ranges from yellow through to dark brown depending on the degree of caramelisation and how it was prepared. It is one of the oldest food colourings, and is used in many different products such as gravy browning, breads and bakery products, chocolates and sweets, and soft drinks such as colas.

Artificial colours

Artificial colours have been used to colour foods for more than a century. They tend to have stronger colours than natural colorants, and most are azo dyes. Over the years, some have been banned from food use, starting with the dye butter yellow, or dimethylazobenzene, which was found to cause cancer in rats and was withdrawn in 1937. Several azo dyes are still used in food, and all have been extensively tested.

A number of artificial food colours have been implicated in causing hyperactivity in children. As a result, several of these are being phased out on a voluntary basis in the UK. Click here for more information on additives and hyperactivity.

Brilliant blue (E133) is a reddish-blue substance that can be used to colour food blue. It can be combined with yellow colours, notably tartrazine, to make food more green. It appears in products such as ice cream, confectionery, soft drinks and tinned peas.

Tartrazine (E102) has gained something of a bad reputation in recent years, with suspicions that it causes hyperactivity and exacerbates asthma. It is a bright yellow colour. Products that can contain tartrazine include sweets, soft drinks and soups.

Soft drinks giants change manufacturing process to avoid ‘unfounded health warning’

Coca-Cola and Pepsi are changing how they make an ingredient in their drinks to avoid being legally obliged to put a cancer warning label on the bottle which they say is ‘scientifically unfounded’.

The new recipe for caramel colouring in the drinks has less 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI) – a chemical that California has added to its list of carcinogens.

However, Coca-Cola says there is no health risk to justify the change – but that it is doing so to ensure to ensure its products ‘would not be subject to the requirement of a scientifically unfounded warning’.

The caramel colour in all of our products has been, is and always will be safe, Coca-Cola said in a statement.

Indeed, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reaffirmed the safety of caramel colouring back in March 2011 – following a
comprehensive review of the scientific literature – saying that the presence of 4-MEI in caramel colouring is not a health concern.

The chemical has been linked to cancer in mice and rats, according to one study, but there is no evidence that it poses a health risk to humans, says the American Beverage Association, which represents the wider industry.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims a person would need to drink more than 1,000 cans of Coke or Pepsi a day to take in the same dose of the chemical that was given to the animals in the lab test.

“Both EFSA and regulatory authorities around the world say caramel colouring is safe for use in food and drink,” says an FAIA spokesman.

“Just last November, Health Canada said that 4-MEI does ‘not represent a risk’ to consumers. Also, the FDA has approved caramel as a colour additive and lists it as ‘a generally recognised as safe’ food ingredient.”

Use of food additives ‘safer and more transparent’ thanks to new legislation.

Safer and more transparent use.

The use of additives in food will soon become even safer and more transparent thanks to legislation adopted by the European Commission.

“This represents a landmark in our efforts to strengthen food safety in the EU,” says Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli (pictured). “The adoption of two regulations on additives will further empower citizens and industry alike as they will make it easier for everyone concerned to know exactly what additives are allowed in foodstuffs.”

The two regulations establish two new lists. The first concerns additives in food and will come into force in June 2013. This list will allow consumers to easily identify which additives are authorised in a particular foodstuff. The second list relates to additives in food ingredients, and will apply 20 days after its publication in the EU’s Official Journal.

Transparency is one major benefit of the new legislation as the new list makes it obvious that in some food categories the authorised additives are very limited or not allowed at all. This is the case, for instance, for unflavoured yogurt, butter, compote, pasta, simple bread, honey, water and fruit juice. In other categories, usually those concerning highly processed foodstuffs – such as confectionery, snacks, sauces and flavoured drinks – a large number of additives are authorised.

“Any initiative that helps educate and enlighten consumers is to be welcomed,” says an FAIA spokesman.

This legislation does just that, while helping to reinforce the message that authorised additives are not only safe but also play a key role in food safety.

Chemist in the kitchen

A page from our first website!

If you want to know more about how food additives tie in with the chemistry that goes on in the kitchen, a downloadable booklet entitled ‘In the mix’ is accessible from the home page, or from the image on this page.

Chemicals have always been welcome in the kitchen: sodium bicarbonate, pectin, yeast, acetic acid etc.

Every cook is a chemist. The first chemical laboratories, back in the Middle Ages, were glorified kitchens, and many chemical processes derive from techniques of cooking. The vital technique of distillation was perfected in the course of man’s search for intoxicating drinks. And far from being dehumanizing, such chemical processes have an ancient magic and glamour, as the great Italian writer Primo Levi pointed out (he was also a chemist):-

Distilling is beautiful.

‘First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to invisible (vapour) invisible, and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is obtained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the usia, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.’

Every kitchen contains a battery of chemical reagents, each with their specific chemical purpose; e.g. sodium bicarbonate, pectin, yeast, acetic acid, sodium chloride; and also substances, such as milk and eggs, that are not usually thought of as chemicals but which actually miracle reagents that chemists would still be incapable of creating if they didn’t already exist.

In many cases, ingredients that sound like chemicals are derived from natural products: lecithin from soya is similar to egg lecithin, acetic acid comes from vinegar, Vitamin C is the active ingredient of lemon juice, and so on. The principle of using additives is something that every cook, high or low, uses every time they prepare a meal. To understand the processes of making sauces, meringues, bread and cakes, of marinading, tenderising and caramelising is to become a food chemist, and it greatly enhances the pleasure of cooking to see it from a chemical point of view. Cooking is chemistry in action, with the added benefit that you can eat the results.