Food colouring, also known as food dye or food colourant, is a substance used to add or enhance colour in various food and beverage products. Food colouring serves several purposes in the food industry, including making food more visually appealing, maintaining consistency in product appearance, and helping consumers identify flavours or brands.

Read: September Issue of Food Infotech Magazine.

Food Colours normally are added to make food attractive or hide any off colour coming from ingredient, however adherently many people miss use the colours to attract the product where the amount of colour is beyond the limits by govt agencies or people often use colours which are not allowed or banned. This gives a bad name to food industry.

Chemistry of Food Colouring: Understanding Colour in Foods
Why is Colour added in foods?

 Off colour foods are generally considered inferior in quality and so colours are added.

 Colours can also protect vitamins and flavours that may be affected by sunlight during storage.

 By using colours, we can enhance the natural colour of a dish and introduce decorative colours to other foods.

 Colour of the food can influence the perceived flavour.

People associate certain colours with certain Flavors and the colour of food can influence the perceived flavour in anything from candy to wine. Sometimes, the aim is to simulate a colour that is perceived by the consumer as natural, such as adding red colouring to glacé cherries (which would otherwise be beige), but sometimes it is for effect like the green ketchup that Heinz launched in 2000.

Colour additives are used in foods for many reasons including for the following:

• To make food more attractive, appealing, appetizing and informative;
• Offsetting colour loss over time due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes moisture and storage conditions;
• Correcting natural variations in colour;
• Enhancing colours that occur naturally;
• Providing colour to colourless and “fun” foods;
• Allowing products to be identified on sight, like candy flavours or medicine dosages.

History of Food colours

The addition of colourants to foods is thought to have occurred in Egyptian cities as early as 1500 BC, when candy makers added natural extracts and wine to improve the products’ appearance.[6] During the Middle Ages, the economy in the European countries was based on agriculture and the peasants were accustomed to producing their own food locally or trading within the village communities. Under feudalism, aesthetic aspects were not considered, at least not by the vast majority of the generally very poor population. This situation changed with urbanization at the beginning of the Modern Age, when trade emerged — especially the import of precious spices and colours. One of the first food laws created in Augsburg, Germany in 1531 concerned spices or colourants and required saffron counterfeiters to be burned to death.

 Food colouring involves the science of imparting colour to various food and beverage products. Food colourants fall into two main categories: natural and artificial and their chemistry plays a significant role in determining the colours we see in our food.

 Natural Colours Or Colours extracted from natural sources

1. Carotenoids: These pigments in fruits and vegetables like carrots and tomatoes are characterized by a structure with alternating single and double bonds. Carotenoids span a spectrum from yellow to red in colour.

2. Chlorophyll: Responsible for the green hue in plants, chlorophyll’s chemical structure features a porphyrin ring and a central magnesium ion. In food colouring, derivatives of chlorophyll are often used.

3. Anthocyanins: Water-soluble pigments in fruits such as berries and grapes. Anthocyanins are complex molecules containing sugar and aromatic ring structures, exhibiting colours from red to purple depending on pH.

4. Betacyanin’s: These red and violet pigments are found in beets and cacti and are nitrogen-containing compounds derived from betalamic acid.

 Artificial Colorants:

1. FD&C Dyes: Under the FDA’s regulation, FD&C dyes are synthetic colorants often derived from petroleum-based compounds. For instance, Red 40 (Allura Red AC) is a widely used red synthetic dye.
2. E Number Colorants: In Europe, colorants are classified using the “E number” system. E102 (Tartrazine) is a commonly used yellow synthetic dye.

Colour Chemistry:

The colour of a food dye depends on its chemical structure and how it interacts with light. Light photons can elevate electrons to higher energy states when they strike a molecule. The energy difference corresponds to the colour of light absorbed by the molecule.

For example, a molecule that absorbs blue light will appear yellow since it reflects the complementary colour (yellow) and absorbs blue light.

pH Influence on Colour:

Certain natural colorants, like anthocyanins, can change colour with shifts in pH. For instance, anthocyanins appear red in acidic conditions but turn blue in alkaline environments. This pH-dependent colour change is due to alterations in the chemical structure of the pigment.

Stability and Degradation:

The stability of food colorants can be affected by factors such as heat, light, and oxygen. Some colorants are sensitive to these factors and may degrade over time, resulting in a loss of colour intensity.

Certainly, let’s delve into more detailed examples of food colouring regulations in India, the United States (US) and the European Union (EU):


Regulatory Authority: In India, food colorants are regulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
Example: Tartrazine (E102): Tartrazine is a synthetic food colorant commonly used to impart a yellow or lemon-yellow colour to various food products. The FSSAI has established Maximum Permissible Limits (MPLs) for Tartrazine in different food
For instance –
In soft drinks: MPL may be set at 100 mg/kg.

In confectionery: MPL may be set at 100 mg/kg.

Labelling: Food products containing Tartrazine must include its presence on the label, and the concentration of the colorant must conform to the MPLs.
1. United States (US):
Regulatory Authority: In the United States, the use of food colorants is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Example: Red 40 (Allura Red AC): Red 40 is a synthetic colour additive widely used in various food and beverage products. The FDA provides specific regulations for its use, including permissible levels in different food categories. For example:
In fruit-flavoured snacks: The permissible limit might be set at 0.1% by weight of the finished product.

Labelling: Products containing Red 40 must list it as an ingredient on the label.

European Union (EU):
Regulatory Authority:

In the European Union, food colorants are regulated under harmonized EU food additive legislation, with oversight from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Commission.

Example: Anthocyanins (E163): Anthocyanins are natural colourants found in fruits and vegetables and are commonly used in the EU for colouring various foods. Specific Maximum Permitted Levels (MPLs) are set for Anthocyanins in different food categories. For instance, in certain fruit preparations, the MPL might be set at 150 mg/kg of the finished product. While each individual country might be allowing a colour and other country may ban it depend on the product category it is used and its allowable limit. Eg. Ponceau 4 R is in list of Banned colours as per US FDA, Finland, Norway but it is allowed in India and other countries. Similarly, in Europe, Allura Red AC is not recommended for consumption by children. It is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Austria, where as it is allowed in US FDA and India and other countries. Hence it is always better to check the colour suitability, allowability before using/or dispatching any ingredient/product based on importing country’s requirements.

Country Regulations pertaining to their use/or Limits

While naturally derived colours, most of which have been used traditionally for centuries, are not required to be certified by a number of regulatory bodies throughout the world (including the U.S. FDA), they may require approval in some countries. Food colourings are tested for safety by various bodies around the world and sometimes different bodies have different views on food colour safety. Artificial food additives usually require certification everywhere. History of regulation.

Concerns over food safety led to numerous regulations throughout the world. German food regulations released in 1882 stipulated the exclusion of dangerous “minerals” such as arsenic, copper, chromium, lead, mercury, and zinc, which were frequently used as ingredients in colorants. In contrast to today’s regulatory guidelines, these first laws followed the principle of a negative listing (substances not allowed for use); they were already driven by the main principles of today’s food regulations all over the world, since all of these regulations follow the same goal: the protection of consumers from toxic substances and from fraud. In the United States, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 reduced the permitted list of synthetic colours from 700 down to seven. The seven dyes initially approved were Ponceau 3R (FD&C Red No. 1), amaranth (FD&C Red No. 2), erythrosine (FD&C Red No. 3), indigotine (FD&C Blue No. 2), light green SF (FD&C Green No. 2), naphthol yellow 1 (FD&C Yellow No. 1), and orange 1 (FD&C Orange No. 1). Even with updated food laws, adulteration continued for many years.

Global harmonization

Since the beginning of the 1960s, JECFA has promoted the development of international standards for food additives, not only by its toxicological assessments, which are continuously published by the WHO in a “Technical Report Series”, but furthermore by elaborating appropriate purity criteria, which are laid down in the two volumes of the “Compendium of Food Additive Specifications” and their supplements. These specifications are not legally binding but very often serve as a guiding principle, especially in countries where no scientific expert committees have been established.

In order to further regulate the use of these evaluated additives, in 1962 the WHO and FAO created an international commission, the Codex Alimentarius, which is composed of authorities, food industry associations and consumer groups from all over the world. Within the Codex organization, the Codex Committee for Food Additives and Contaminants is responsible for working out recommendations for the application of food additives: The General Standard for Food Additives. In the light of the World Trade Organizations General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the Codex Standard, although not legally binding, influences food colour regulations all over the world.

Labelling: Products containing Anthocyanins must indicate their presence in the ingredient list and conform to MPLs.

Myths vs. Realities:

Food colouring is universally harmful.

Reality: This section delves into the common misconception that all food colourings are harmful. It emphasizes the need to differentiate between various types of food colourings and highlights that safety depends on factors such as the type, concentration and adherence to regulatory standards.

Artificial food colourings are inherently risky.

This segment focuses on artificial colourings and the widespread belief that they are universally hazardous. It discusses the safety evaluations conducted by regulatory bodies and the nuanced safety profiles of different artificial colourings.

Natural food colourings are automatically safe.

Natural colourings are generally considered safe, but this section explores potential allergens and safety variations related to the source and processing
methods used for natural colourants.

Food colouring is solely for aesthetic purposes.

This portion illuminates the multifaceted role of food colouring, which extends beyond aesthetics. It plays a functional role in maintaining product consistency and assisting consumers in identifying Flavors.

All food colourings are chemical-based.

This section clarifies the distinction between natural and artificial colourings, emphasizing that being chemical-based doesn’t necessarily imply harm.
Classification is based on the source, not intrinsic toxicity.

Food colourings are always prominently labelled on products.

The concluding segment addresses labelling regulations and the possibility of undisclosed colourings in specific products. It underscores the importance of informed consumer choices and heightened awareness of potential allergens.

Commonly Used Colour Compounds:
Synthetic Organic Colours:
These include azo dyes (e.g. tartrazine), triphenylmethane dyes (e.g. brilliant blue) and xanthene dyes (e.g. erythrosine).
Natural Colours:
Common natural colourants include carotenoids (e.g., beta-carotene), chlorophylls (green colour), anthocyanins (purple/red colours) and betalains (from beets and cacti).

Inorganic Colours: These can include titanium dioxide (white), iron oxides (red, yellow, brown) and chromium oxide (green).

LDL and HDL:

LDL (Low-Density Lipoprotein) and HDL (High-Density Lipoprotein) are not directly related to food colours but are related to cholesterol levels in the bloodstream. They are lipoproteins that transport cholesterol. High LDL levels are associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis, while high HDL levels are considered protective against heart disease.

MSDS of Colour Additives:

Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) provide information about the safety and handling of chemical substances. Specific MSDS sheets are available for individual colour additives, detailing their chemical properties, potential hazards, safe handling instructions and emergency procedures.

Carcinogenicity of Colours:

Not all colours are considered carcinogenic. Some synthetic organic colours have been associated with potential health risks, leading to concerns. For example, some azo dyes were found to break down into aromatic amines, which are considered potentially carcinogenic. However, strict regulations and testing protocols are in place to assess the safety of colour additives and not all colours are carcinogenic. Natural colours derived from plants and minerals are generally considered safer.

Regulatory Compliance and Oversight of Food-Grade Colours in India – Factors, Practices & Consumer Impact

Colour additives in food are subject to rigorous safety assessments and regulations to minimize health risks. It’s crucial to follow regional regulations and guidelines when using colour additives in food products to ensure their safety and compliance with food safety standards.

The extent to which India follows the rules and regulations for food-grade colours can vary depending on several factors, including government oversight, industry practices and consumer awareness.

Here are some key points to consider:
Regulatory Framework:

India has a regulatory authority called the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) responsible for regulating and controlling food safety and standards in the country. FSSAI sets standards and regulations for various aspects of food, including food additives such as colours.

Compliance with FSSAI:

Food businesses in India are required to comply with the regulations set forth by FSSAI. This includes following rules related to the use of food-grade colours, their permissible limits in different food products, labelling requirements and safety assessments.

Industry Practices:

Compliance with regulations can vary within the food industry. Larger and established food companies often have better systems in place for ensuring compliance with food-grade colour regulations. They may have dedicated quality control and R&D departments to monitor and adjust their processes.

Small and Unregulated Entities:

India has a vast and diverse food industry, which includes many small-scale producers and local businesses. Some of these entities may not have the resources or knowledge to fully comply with food safety regulations, including those related to food colours.

Consumer Awareness:

Consumer awareness about food safety and additives like food colours can influence industry practices. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of safe and natural food ingredients among consumers in India, which has led to increased scrutiny of food products and their ingredients.

Regulatory Enforcement:

The effectiveness of regulatory enforcement can impact how well the rules for food-grade colours are followed. The government’s ability to inspect and enforce compliance among food businesses plays a crucial role.

Testing and Surveillance:

Periodic testing and surveillance of food products in the market are essential to ensure compliance. The FSSAI and other regulatory bodies may conduct inspections and testing to verify that food products, including those using food-grade colours, meet the specified standards.


This article promotes a balanced perspective on food colouring, acknowledging that not all colour additives pose risks and that safety largely hinges on factors such as type, concentration and adherence to regulatory mandates. It reinforces the significance of transparent product labelling and advocates for ongoing monitoring and surveillance to uphold food safety standards.

Ultimately, this article seeks to empower readers with knowledge, enabling them to make informed choices regarding the foods they consume. It underscores the crucial roles of responsible regulation and consumer awareness in preserving the safety and authenticity of food products in India and beyond.

About the Authors:
1. FT Shashank Joshi
Food Technologist
Email ID:
2. FT Dhaneshwari Karnawat
Food Technologist


An editor by day & dreamer at night; passionately involved with both print and digital media; Pet lover; Solo traveller.

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