As I mentioned below, a lot of people get very worked up over artificial colors, especially red. There’s reason for this. The red food color many of us in America once knew, Red No. 2 (also known as Amaranth or E123), was banned in the US in 1976 after independent studies found it to be carcinogenic in large doses. It’s still used in many parts of the world, since researchers in other nations have come to the conclusion that it’s safe. This isn’t terribly surprising, since food colors are the most rigorously safety-tested food ingredients in the world, and every nation has its own set of standards.
In fact it’s interesting to note that our current replacement for Red No. 2, Red No. 40 (also know as Allura Red AC or E129) is currently banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and Norway. But then most of those countries use Patent Blue V, which is banned here in the US, and in Australia and Norway. Most of them also use Yellow 7G which is banned here in the US and in Norway. We all use Yellow No. 5, except of course for Norway, where I’m beginning to think all food is served the same sickly shade of gray.
Here you might be tempted to wonder why, in our technically advanced world, there’s such a problem getting a red that everybody agrees on. But ask anyone who works in the color industry and they’ll tell you, if there’s one cardinal rule of food color making it’s that red is hard. The world is filled with relatively easy yellows (saffron leaps to mind), greens (chlorophyll) and browns. But reds are a completely different story.
The color red abounds in nature — in flowers, on the skins and in the juice of vegetables, fruits and berries, in plant roots and stems. Unfortunately the vast majority of that red color occurs in the form of compounds called anthocyanins, notoriously unstable pigments that fade rapidly, or change color altogether, with fluctuations in temperature or pH, or with time. So on the one hand it’s a tough thing to put in a bottle. On the other, it’s a very appetizing primary food color. The search for it led to the development of the modern food color industry.
Cudbear, a red lichen derivative, was the world’s first man-made food dye. It was invented by a Scotsman by the name of Cuthbert Gordon in 1758 (one of its first applications was as an additive to old cheap wine, to restore its ruby color). Another, Alkanna, made from borage roots, gives brilliant red color, though since it turns brown in contact with water it’s only useful for oils or in meats. Sanders (made from Sandalwood), another popular red color in Renaissance Europe, had the same limitations.
Such is the lot of food chemists to this day. A color that works great in one application is a disaster in another. It wasn’t until coal tar pigments were invented in the mid-1800’s that truly heat-, pH- and age-tolerant colors came on the scene. But we’ve been arguing about their relative safety ever since.