Everything Old is New Again

Someday someone will write a book on the history of food coloring litigation. Well, no, I guess they won’t…but a very, very interesting read it might have been. For the battle over food coloring is a microcosm of a much broader fight that’s still going on: between small local food producers and big food manufacturers. Today we witness it in the form of “natural and organic” vs. “packaged foods”, but these are merely new names for old combatants in a conflict that’s at least 150 years old.

Ever since large industrial food makers have had the capability of coloring food, their competitors (almost uniformly small food producers) have fought them over it. In the 1800’s most of these battles were waged outside the courts, for back then there was no regulation. The central issue: safety. And for very good reason (see the below post The Dark Days of Color). However once government started taking an interest in food safety, the critical health issues around food colors were quickly resolved. Formulas changed, but the colors didn’t go away. So the battle moved to new ground: quality.

Any time a food maker puts an artificial color into a food, there’s the natural question: why? Isn’t it fresh? Is it badly prepared? Is it something other than what you’re telling me it is? In other words, it’s reasonable to wonder if it’s some sort of trick. Nowadays we tend not to wonder that, since we’re so accustomed to colorings in the foods we buy (we even use them at home). Yet once upon a time people did look askance at food coloring, a sentiment that many a small food maker capitalized on to hobble his bigger, more powerful competitor.

For small foods makers rightly saw that industrial food producers were vulnerable on the freshness issue. To make their mass-produced products competitive with local (or home made) foods, big manufacturers had to doctor them with additives like colors. Take away those colors, so the thinking went, and those products would be revealed for what they were: old, industrially made, artificially preserved…fundamentally inferior to the real thing.

One of the most famous of these early contests pitted dairymen (which is to say, a national consortium of small, local producers) against the margarine industry. Margarine, as you probably know, is composed of animal fat. When it was first introduced to the market in the 1880’s it was white, which is its natural color. The trouble was, people weren’t attracted to it as a spread, at least compared to butter. To compensate for this, big margarine manufacturers colored their product yellow to make it look more like butter. The dairymen cried foul, claiming that big meat processing concerns were trying to dupe the public (those same local dairying concerns had been adding yellow color to their own fresh butter for years to make it look more appetizing, but why cloud the issue?).

This was just one of hundreds of legal contests that pitted small businessmen against big manufacturers of everything from vegetables to beef stew to packaged pies. In time legal precedents, in combination with FDA rulings that classified most food colorings as fair “additives” put the hammer down on most of this kind of litigation (though the margarine-butter battle still rages today in Canada). Which is why the modern debate has switched back to the issue of health. True, no one is being killed or hospitalized as a result of toxic colorings anymore, but a lot can be chalked up to food color “sensitivity”, from hyperactivity to sleeplessness to hives to irritable bowel. In other words, there’s still a lot of battle ground left. New studies can always be commissioned, new courtrooms always found.

Then again, perhaps not. For while even five years ago depriving big food makers of their precious colorings would have dealt them a crippling blow, nowadays it would simply constitute an inconvenience. New advances in organic technology (if those two words can rightly be used together) have given birth to a palette of plant-derived, 100% organic colors to rival any paint store.

But then to be honest, colorings are really obsolete weaponry in the realm of contemporary food fights. Today small food concerns have all sorts of new stuff in their arsenal: trans fats, HCFS, BPA, you name it. Heck, Michael Pollan is trying to make corn itself the Scheele’s green of the new millennium (talk about trying to kick a leg out of the food-industrial stool!). And so the battle goes on…

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