An Edible Color Palette

Blog > 2011 > Science > Article

An Edible Color Palette

Say hello to Blue No. 1, Yellow No. 5, and Red No. 40.
These numbers make up part of an artificial color palette approved by the United States’ Food and Drug Administration. First introduced in 1906, the FDA’s Pure Food and Drug Act (and later the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act) was put in place to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of food products. Before this, more than eighty dyes were used to color food, without regulation—the same dye could be used to color both clothing and candy.

FD&C Blue No. 1

Blue No. 1
Typical of modern dyes, Blue No. 1 was originally derived from coal tar. Today, most manufacturers produce it synthetically from an oil base. Also known as “Brilliant Blue FCF,” it is used to color products like Gatorade, soft drinks, candy, and mouthwash. Along with Yellow No. 5 and Red No. 40, it is one of the most commonly used colors, and can be combined with Yellow No. 5 to create various shades of green. In 2003, The FDA warned of several reports of toxicity associated with its use, including death.

FD&C Blue No. 2
This royal blue dye is a synthetic version of the plant-based indigo, the same colorant used to dye blue jeans. It can be found in soft drinks, candy such as M&Ms, frozen deserts, breakfast cereals, and bakery products. It is use medical dyes, surgical sutures, and for testing milk. The World Health Organization gives Blue No. 2 a toxicology rating of B: Available data not entirely sufficient to meet requirements acceptable for food use.

FD&C Green No. 3
Like many of the other current FD&C colors, Green No. 3 was created as a replacement for another dye that was delisted after health concerns (replacing Green No. 2 in this case).Green No. 3, or “Fast Green FCF,” is used in products like canned peas, candy, fish, and vegetables. The dye is not permitted in the European Union due to animal studies which showed it to be a possible carcinogen.

FD&C Yellow No. 5
Derived from coal tar, Tartrazine is a lemon yellow azo dye. It is one of the most widely used additives, found in products like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Mountain Dew, Doritos, breakfast cereals, candy, chewing gum, jam, pickles, yogurt, vitamins, and prescription drugs. The dye is banned in Norway and the Britain’s Foods Standard Agency has called for a voluntary phase-out of its use in foods due to links to hyperactivity in children.

FD&C Yellow No. 6
As the name suggests, Sunset Yellow is a reddish yellow coloring. Like Yellow No. 5, it is derived from coal tar, and its effects on health have been questioned. It is banned in Norway and Finland, and was included in the UK’s push for voluntary phase-out. It can be found in orange soda, hot chocolate mix, breakfast cereal, and candy like Reese’s Pieces.

FD&C Red No. 3
Red No. 3, also known by its chemical name Erythrosine, is a cherry-pink dye used to color products like maraschino cherries, pistachios, canned fruit, candy, popsicles, cake decorating gels, and toothpaste. It is also used in printing inks, as a biological stain, a dental plaque disclosing agent, and in X-rays. In 1990, the U.S. FDA placed a partial ban on Red No. 3 after research showed high doses could cause cancer in rats.

FD&C Red No. 40
Allura Red is the newest color of the bunch, approved in 1971, and was introduced to replace the banned Red No. 4. Despite the popular misconception, Red No. 40 is not derived from insects (that would be carmine). This azo dye wasoriginally manufactured from coal tar, but is now mostly made from petroleum. It is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Sweden. It was also included in UK’s voluntary phase-out in 2009, due to hyperactivity in children. Red No. 40 can be found in sweets like Twizzlers, soft drinks, condiments, and cosmetics.

FD&C Orange B
Derived from coal tar, Orange B is limited for use only in hot dog and sausage casings. In 1978, the FDA announced its use could result in exposure to beta-naphthylamine, a known cancer-causing additive. Beta-naphthylamine is listed on the Center for Disease Control’s Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards.

FD&C Citrus Red No. 2
An azo dye approved for use only in coloring citrus peels. The dye is used in Florida to mask color variations with oranges and tangerines throughout the seasons (it is not used in California). According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, studies have shown health problems including cancer from heavy ingestion and from exposure to the skin.