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Are Natural Food Colours Really Natural?

Are natural food colours really natural?

Are Natural Food Colours Really Natural? If you're a parent, teacher, carer or observer of children, you probably don't need double-blind placebo controlled scientific studies to know that artificial food dyes have an adverse affect on some kids. Step 1: Give a kid some M&M's. Step 2: Watch them immediately spiral out of control into a whirlwind of hyperactivity and irritability. There you have it. The science is settled. Well, okay, maybe not settled. But I've seen my own children react exactly this way when they've had M&M's or other highly coloured, 100% artifical crap. If you need to be convinced by something more than my empirical evidence, there are decades of scientific studies linking artificial food dyes to ADHD, hyperactivity, cognitive disturbance, compulsive aggression, asthma, hives, low-serum iron and zinc, irritability and poor sleep. All of these things can impair a child's learning abilities. But if you're reading the Hello Charlie blog, you're probably already trying to lead a natural lifestyle, and it's unlikely that you're feeding your child M&M's and wondering what on earth has gotten into them. So let's go a little deeper here. How do you know whether 'natural' food colours are natural or not?  Interestingly, according to government food regulations, a food dye is considered natural if it is nature identical, i.e. it is produced by chemical synthesis. There's an interesting table here from an Australian food ingredient specialist, which shows how food colours are categorised at different levels of natural. This means that a lot of 'natural' products can include artificial food dyes and still call themselves natural - because food regulations let them. So the first step to avoiding artificial food dyes is understanding how it's classified. There are three categories of natural food colouring.
  • N1 is derived from plant, animal, mineral or microbiological source through traditional and/or physical processing. In other words, unaltered from its natural source.
  • N2 is the same as N1, with the provision for chemical processing. So, extracted from its natural source and then altered.
  • N3 is a colour identical with a colouring principle that occurs in nature and which is produced by chemical synthesis. So it's synthesised to be chemically identical to its natural source, though no part of it is actually natural.
And then there's category A: artificial food dye produced by chemical synthesis and not found in nature. So two out of three categories that the food regulators class as natural are not what you or I would consider natural, as they've been manufactured in a laboratory. Why do companies use artificial and synthetic food dyes?  Part of the reason that companies use artificial food dyes is due to cost. Part of the reason is due to stability, especially handy when producing on a mass scale. But a LARGE part of the reason that companies use artificial food dyes is due to consumer expectation. That's right, you.  Here's an example that will blow your mind. There are salmon farmers that use a SalmoFan colour chart to determine the amount of artificial food colouring to be added to their salmon, or the colour of egg yolks, not unlike a graphic designer labouring over a Pantone chart for the most attractive and alluring colour to use in the advertisement they're creating. Before you cry outrage from the rooftops, put your hand up if you've ever been guilty of choosing your fish or meat over your preconceived ideas of what looks the most appetising? I know I have. How to read food labels to avoid artificial food colours By buying food that is labelled has having 'no artificial colours or flavours' you're still leaving yourself open to ingesting nature-identical or chemically synthesised food dyes. The same goes for buying organic. Most of us believe that something is either is natural, or it isn't. But the regulatory boards say otherwise. Know your numbers. There are good and bad E numbers, so you need to know exactly what you're looking for. This table from the Natural Food Colours Association shows you which E numbers are for natural colours, and which are artificial colours. Best of all, look for natural colourants such as beet, carotenes, annatto or the paprika extract capsanthin for example. These are natural food colours. Remember the words 'naturally derived' can be deceptive, you don't know what chemical processing has been undertaken to arrive in its end state. How can you avoid artificial food dyes?  When it comes to the crunch, the best way to avoid food dyes of any kind is to eat whole foods. Better yet, introduce your kids to a garden so that they learn from a young age what fruits and vegetables are supposed to look like in nature. A little wonky. Not so bright. Tastes so much better. Try making your own play dough for the kids using foods such as blueberries, beetroot and spices such as turmeric. There's a great post here about how to make your own natural food dyes. When it comes to medicines and over the counter remedies, always ask your doctor or chemist about the ingredients of any prescribed medicines or supplements for your kids and check whether there is a better alternative. Is any of this surprise to you? How do you avoid artificial food colourings, especially for your kids? Share in the comments below. Image credit: Dominic Rooney on Flickr
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