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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 mouths. 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.


Food Colour and Taste Perception

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 trolleys. 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.


 Tempting variety of coloured candy

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Food Colour: Synthetic vs Natural

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 (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) 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.



The right thing to do:

 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.

1. Read the Label

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.

2. Limit Processed & Packaged Food

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 will 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.



Low cost Natural Food Colours At Home

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 kitchen. 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.



Advantages of Naturally Derived Food Colours

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.


pastaDescription: Green Orange and Yellow Pasta

Pasta coloured with spinach, tomato and turmeric

Photo credit Pexels


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16 thoughts on “IS FOOD COLOUR ON THE MENU ?

  1. This is an excellent post Tanya, although with the sections dedicated to ADHD, this is one of immense controversy as there is no one clearly defined pathway that has proved this connection. Sugar of course has always been identified with causing further problems, and so much of the food these days for some reason manufacturers insist on inserting sugar when there is no need.

    I am more concerned about the presence of chemicals in most of our food stuffs. I was reading an article a few months ago where food dyes as an example are added to foods principally to further encourage purchase, beetroot as an example is already predom red and yet red food dye is added to it to enhance its colour, this practice also happens with more foods than people might imagine.

    But checmicals are something that needs to be seriously addressed by the chemical giants and governments as currently these two are hand in hand with profits and greed – on one hand ‘chemicals are bad’, whilst the other is raking in the profits from chemicals being used.

    Suze and l eat a very different diet, one that is very hard to buy for at times. We are both constant in our checking of labels so as to not cause further friction with intolerances and allergies for starters – it is a huge subject that needs intense study.

    Equally controversal is Red 40 which is a known aggressor for causing and creating allerggic reactions in people, as well as is reputed for ‘hyperactivity’ hence we are back to ADHD, but until in depth and current studies, l think we all have to be almost sitting on the fence here with final decisions – BUT l do totally agree with the content of yuour post which lends weight to we always have to be careful, we should always check labels, equally as much as we should always wash all fruit and vegetables instead of just being reliant that they are washed.

    I think back to ADHD we need to examine more closely the connections between food dyes, sugar and diet – and l would lean more on diet as a very clear cut study. If food dyes are causing problems – then parents need to avoid these but also remember that it is not just one that cause the problems, there are and will be many factors to take into consideration – reading the latest study on it from the NHS here in the UK – National Health Service – there are distinct colours that they suggest you may take out from your child’s diet [see below] as these are closely linked to potential hyperactivity.

    E102 (tartrazine)
    E104 (quinoline yellow)
    E110 (sunset yellow FCF)
    E122 (carmoisine)
    E124 (ponceau 4R)
    E129 (allura red)

    These colourings are used in the likes of soft drinks,sweets, cakes and ice cream which would also contain very high quanties of sugar, which could also lead to poor diet and insufficient exercise issues.

    However sadly there isn’t conclusive evidence that allows us to say with 100% authority that these are culprits for sure.

    Excellent post Tanya 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for this very informative comment.
      Although there is no conclusive evidence for the link to ADHD , there is no harm in erring on the side of caution.

      I am so glad you liked this post. Your feedback is always very encouraging.


      1. I found it very interesting Tanya, l studied this particular subject quite heavily a few years back when l was studying for my Diploma in Autism. we looked very closely at ADHD.

        When l was younger l was diagnosed as being hyperactive, which Back in the 70’s was basically today’s ADHD. The doctors advised my mother to restrict aspects of my diet, to reduce my sugar, she never had a problem with my excercising as l was just so active, but she did sometimes have occasions to worry about my food intakes and so started on diet restrictions.

        It is always going to be a fascinating subject for me as l sit on the spectrum anyway 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I suppose in many ways, had l not been diagnosed, l would never have taken the course. It was a way of understanding the Asperger’s diagnosis more, because the NHS over here failed to provide any support for an elder diagnosis, so l had to learn about my disorder by taking an academic course on the subject there is a kind of humerous irony there isn’t there ha ha 🙂

        That the medical professionals completely and utterly failed me, and l had to almost go back to school to learn of my condition l still laugh about it even today 🙂

        Liked by 1 person


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