Freaky Facts About Food Dyes

colorful food dyesYears ago when I was in India procuring herbs, I helped broker the sale of marigold extract to the Tyson Chicken Company. I had no idea what big business it was to sell marigolds as a food dye. When marigold extract is added to chicken feed, the chicken skin turns a more appetizing yellow and the egg yolks become golden. We can thank the late Frank Perdue for this discovery.

Marigold – along with saffron, carrots and annatto, which comes from a tropical seed – is also added to cheeses to give them that yellow-orange color. Interestingly, centuries ago many cheeses naturally had a yellow-orange color lent by the beta carotene from the rich grasses grazed on by the cows. Before long, golden, yellow or orangish cheese became a symbol of quality.

Of course, the beta carotenes (a precursor to vitamin A) are only found in full-fat milk, as vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin. As far back as the seventeenth century, cheese makers would skim off the fat to use as a natural dye for butter and low fat cheese, passing off the low fat cheese as a higher quality cheese. (1)

Unfortunately in today’s food industry many unhealthy dyes are added to our foods to make them look more appealing and appear to be of higher quality. While some dyes have been found to be harmful, 7 synthetic dyes are still approved by the FDA.

They are:

Blue No. 1
Blue No. 2
Green No. 3
Red No. 3
Red No. 40
Yellow No. 5
Yellow No. 6

Yellow dyes 5 and 6 have experienced enough bad press lately that they should be avoided whenever possible. In the UK, any food item sold containing these dyes must have the following warning on the label: May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.

Some tips for avoiding potentially unhealthy dyes: (2)

1. Go organic.

2. Avoid numbers on labels. Synthetic dyes have numbers.

3. Look for names of natural dyes you can recognize, like marigold, beet, carotenes, chlorophyll, turmeric, annatto or capsanthin (a paprika extract) all are natural colorants.

4. Surprise! Artificial coloring might not be as bad as we think. Artificial colors, unlike synthetic dyes, are meant to be derived from natural sources, while synthetic dyes must be labeled by name (number).


1. How 17th Century Fraud Gave Rise to Bright Orange Cheese
by ALLISON AUBREY. November 07, 2013
2. Huffington Post. Eating Well Magazine. Brierley Wright, Worried About Food Dyes, 4 Tips to Avoid Them. Nov 20.2013


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