The Dark Days of Color

So how did food colors come to be the most rigorously safety-tested ingredients in the world? Abuse, of course. Up to now I’ve written mostly about where safe colorings and dyes have come from. Unsafe colorings and dyes were once far more numerous, and far more widely used.

Fraud perpetrated by food makers — especially millers — goes back millennia. However it took the Industrial Revolution to really elevate the practice to an art. That was the time (the late 1700’s) when industrial workers began congregating in cities in earnest, attracted there by high-paying jobs. Removed from their farms, they were forced to hire out various aspects of their food preparation to others. These “others” ranged from bread bakers who might “step on” their flour with cheap additives like chalk dust or bone meal, to dairymen who’d frequently “correct” spoiled milk by adding lye to it.

But then those tricks had been employed for centuries by that time. The industrial age, with its advances in chemistry, opened up a whole new world of possibility to the unscrupulous merchant, especially where colorings were concerned.

If you were a n’er-do-well pickle maker around 1800, you might perk up a batch of limp product with some copper sulfate. What if you were a dairyman looking to add a rich yellow hue to your butter? A little lead chromate. Both these metal salts are toxic, though they were by no means the most dangerous chemicals secreted into food. Candy makers employed all sorts of heavy metal nasties to create bright, attractive colors. Red vermillion, blue vitriol and Scheele’s green were common tints in the confectionery trade. They contain mercury, copper and arsenic respectively. Though they were well-known poisons, food makers continued to employ them in Europe into the late 1880’s, and until 1906 in America, when metal salt colorings were finally outlawed.

The irony is that far safer (not to mention cheaper and better) coloring agents had been in production for 50 years by that time. Coal tar pigments of the very same type we use today were invented by English chemist Sir William Henry Perkin in 1856. But because colors weren’t standardized or regulated, manufacturers had few ways of telling them apart from poisonous equivalents.

Since 1906 the regulation of color has become increasingly stringent, though a particularly ugly string of incidents involving Halloween candy in the 50’s (in which hundreds of American children were hospitalized after they consumed too much food coloring) led to a major overhaul of the coloring industry. Since then the safety bar has been set so high for food colors, they have become the safest food additives on the planet. The level of scrutiny applied to them has led some — including me — to wonder what would happen if all our food was so thoroughly tested and re-tested. We’d never get to eat anything.

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