It is the attractive colour of strawberries that draws us to pick them up, inhale their heady scent and then put these lovely, juicy, bits of heaven in our mouth. We have derived so much pleasure, even before the first bite. But what prompted us to pop them? It was not the sweet tart taste, the freshness, the soft fleshy texture or even the heady aroma. It was the colour, the lovely bright red – a grey or taupe strawberry would probably not have made its way to our taste buds had we not been really hungry.
It is colour that guides our choice of food. The influence of colour is so strong that it even influences the perception of taste. I recall watching an experiment on YouTube. Lemon-flavoured jelly was divided in three portions. Red food colouring was added to one portion, yellow to another and the third was left colourless. Out of a group of children and adults, nearly all perceived the red jelly as strawberry and the yellow one as lemon. As for the colourless one, some thought it was banana and some detected the actual flavor of lemon.
Colour and its association with taste plays a predominant role in our food perception and choices. The colour red is traditionally associated with sweet foods. Yellow and orange are perceived as sour or citrus flavours. Brown is automatically bracketed with chocolate. So ingrained are these food and colour associations in our psyche that the very names of colours derive from them. Cherry red, mint green, butter yellow and salmon pink; these are just a few shades/colours named after food. Shades of brown—cinnamon, café au lait and chocolate; shades of pink—- bubble gum , candy and strawberry.
Naturally coloured foods, primarily fruits and vegetables, lose their attractiveness with storage. Also, cooking and processing account for a loss of colour. Some foods like cereals have drab colours to begin with, but those made for children can be found in all colours of the rainbow.
Candy, cookies, cakes, chips; sauces, dressings, pickles and relish; jellies, jams and marmalade: all these attract us with their colours. Tricking our brains into believing that good appearance equals good taste, they tempt us to pick them up from supermarket shelves and put them in our trollies. This makes coloured food and therefore food colours a very important part of the processed and packaged food industry. In the US, fifteen million pounds of food colour are used annually. In Pakistan we have no reliable figures at present but I am sure they must be pretty staggering.
Caption: Tempting variety of coloured candy
Many food colours have been developed, some from natural sources; but unfortunately the majority are synthetic. Synthetic food dyes are derived from petroleum but are very cheap and retain their colours. As anyone can realize, these synthetic dyes are not very good for health. Many studies are available, linking them to learning disorders and ADHD in children. They have also been implicated in allergies and asthma. Some notorious food colours like Sunset Yellow and Red Dye 40 are associated with the Big C (cancer)—- they are potential carcinogens.
Such studies have led to a lot of food activism by concerned consumers, especially parents of young children. In the US, the FDA states that whistle blowing studies have found no real link between synthetic food dyes and ADHD. However, it is better for parents to err on the side of caution. Studies state that synthetic dyes have been found to ”exacerbate ADHD in genetically predisposed individuals” . But why take the risk? Authorities in the UK and the EU have banned the use of chemical food dyes and have stringent rules for manufacturers to display ingredients and additives on labels.
Although in our part of the world there is little to no legislation regarding such matters, we as concerned citizens can make a lot of difference. We are still at an elementary stage regarding food safety, but we are making progress. In June 2017, our local food authorities in Lahore caught a manufacturer making packaged fruit juice from chemical dyes, sugar and flavouring. The very fact that they were caught red handed bodes well for our future.
Charity begins at home—we can pledge to shun brightly coloured ice cream, rainbow coloured cereal, multicoloured candy and other artificially coloured foods. A word of caution here, many supposedly naturally coloured foods have artificial food colours added to them to enhance their natural colours where we least expect them. Green dye is added to pickled cucumbers to make them look fresher, pink is added to salmon to improve its appearance. So it is not just candy and junk food , but any food coming out of a package that is suspect.
The best thing to do under the circumstances is to use fresh food as far as possible. Convenience and packaged food should be avoided, especially for children. I know busy moms juggling with many roles will not like me for saying this. For them I have two pieces of advice.
First, make it a practice, rather a reflex, to read the fine print: read labels and read labels and read labels. Most good companies list their ingredients including additives, artificial flavours and colours. However, these are usually crowded together in a very small font so always take your glasses with you when grocery shopping. But , as you might have experienced, some labels are beyond glasses, they require more effort. I have, more than once come across shoppers armed with a magnifying glass. Hats off to these people who are truly concerned about their family’s health. It is my ambition to emulate them.
My other pearl of wisdom is to limit the use of processed and packaged foods to emergencies and special occasions. How boring! You might say. I agree, a birthday cake with beige icing will not seem very festive. Jellies and candies may be delicious but wil seem unappetizing if left colourless. The hugely popular Pakistani sweet yellow rice , Zarda,will become Safaida ( Urdu safaid meaning white).
All is not lost however. There is a way out of this predicament. The simple solution is to go back to our roots. In days gone by, brightly coloured natural materials were used as dyes, not just for food but also for clothing. Health conscious food companies have started using these and many other naturally coloured substances as food dyes. These cost a little more than the petroleum based synthetic dyes but the health benefits far outweigh the cost.
Those who do not want to fork out vast sums of money on these all natural food colours or those who want to make extra sure by doing things themselves can take heart. Extracting natural food colour is not at all difficult. You can easily make them in your own kitcen. Voila—-naturally coloured cake icing, candy, pasta, rice; you can create them all with a clear conscience. All of the fun and none of the side effects, it’s a win win situation. Red colour can be derived from beetroot, green from spinach and yellow from turmeric — all low cost and healthy. Once you have created these colours , and patted yourself on the back, you can pat yourself once again. Not only have they protected you from asthma, allergies and ADHD (and the big C), you have also managed to avoid the excess calories and sodium that always accompany processed food. As in all aspects of healthy eating, the sensible approach to food colour lies in a change in attitude. Less is always better than more and moderation is the wisest course.
Caption: Pasta coloured with spinach, tomato and turmeric
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