We “eat” with our eyes. Foods must look visually appealing. For this reason, food coloring plays an important role in the food supply. They are used in the food industry for the following primary reasons:

  1. To offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature, moisture and storage conditions
  2. To correct natural variations in color
  3. To enhance colors that occur naturally but at levels weaker than those associated with a given food
  4. To provide a color identity to foods that would otherwise be virtually colorless
  5. To provide color appearance to certain “fun foods” such as candies
  6. To provide flavor and vitamin protection against sunlight during storage
  7. To provide appealing variety that meets consumer demand

Color additives are defined as materials which is a dye, pigment  or other substances made by synthesis or derived from vegetable, animal, mineral or other source which is added to food, drug, cosmetic, or the human body to impart color. The term color includes black, white and intermediate grays. The FDA is responsible for regulating color additives under the FD&C act.  All food coloring permitted for use are either certified or exempt from certification.

Certified and Exempt Color Additives

Certified color additives are man-made and included nine certified colors. They offer some advantages to exempt coloring additives in that they tend to be stronger and therefore can be used in smaller quantities, they blend easily and uniformly, they have a wider range of hues and they do not impart flavor. Certifiable colors additives are available either as “dyes” or “lakes”. Dyes are water soluble and are used in applications such as beverages, dry mixes, baked goods, confections, dairy products, pet foods and a variety of other products. Lakes are water insoluble and are therefore used in fats and oil applications, or foods lacking moisture e.g. tablets, cake and donut mixes, hard candies and chewing gums. Certified color additives are given an FD&C name to distinguish them from colors used in non-food products that are designated as D&C (drugs) and Ext. D&C (cosmetics). They are approved on a batch-by-batch basis by the FDA Color Certification Branch. Samples submitted to the FDA are tested to verify identity, purity and strength. The process may take up to 5 days. The batch cannot be sold until tests are completed and a certificate is issued along with a unique lot number. Exempt color additives are derived from natural sources. They do not require batch-by-batch testing.

Color Additives Petition

New color additives are approved through a petition process similar to the formal approval petition process required for food additives. Upon successful petition, the FDA will promulgate a new regulation for the use of the color additive. The petition process applies to both certified and exempt color additives. As with food additives, color additives must comply with the Delaney Clause. That is, they must not cause cancer in either man or animals.

Reference: Sanchez, M. C. (2015). Food law and regulation for non-lawyers – A US perspective. New York, NY: Springer International.

Courtney Simons
Courtney Simons is a food science professor. He holds a BS degree in food science and a Ph.D. in cereal science from North Dakota State University.
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