Seeing Red

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.

22 thoughts on “Seeing Red”

  1. Do you know anything about the use cochineal as a red food dye? As it’s derived from an insect it’s problematic for vegetarians and vegans, and I think there were some problems with its use in kosher products. But I would think it’s safe to use in baking.

    1. A post on that is coming up, Ted! I’ll have to look into the kosher aspect. It’s never occurred to me to ask if bugs are kosher. Maybe there are some readers out there who know!

      – Joe

  2. In general, is the naming of “Color” + “Number” + “optional modifier” as simple as this is the seventh formulation of the this hue of yellow?

    1. Good question, Mark! I never thought to ask that. Let me see if I can find out!


      – Joe

  3. There’s a great book on the color red: “A Perfect Red,” by Amy Butler
    Greenfield. A wonderful read and lots of history on the making of this color.

  4. Don’t forget cochineal! Once you get past the initial ick factor, I think it’s a pretty nifty way to turn things red.

  5. I vaguely remember a period of time when there were no red M&Ms, presumably because of the Red Dye #2 issue. Imagine opening a packet of M&Ms and not having any red ones! Oh, my.

    1. I distantly remember that as well. It must have been because of Red #2, though I don’t really know for sure. Always more to find out about food ingredient history…

      – Joe

  6. Heh, I knew something was off about the red food color here.

    just a fyi, been trying to get that gorgeous red for a red velvet cake, my ex’s family in the states made a homemade version that was to die for. I’ve since searched for that perfect recipe… Though they had some cooked candy/white fudge type frosting that nobody ever made right after grandma went to the pearly gates. As a result nearly any red velvet that has a noticeably tangy cream cheese frosting just tastes wrong to me, I prefer the cooked milk one or the messed up but still tasty white fudgy one.

    1. Interesting. A cooked milk “heritage” frosting seems to be preferred…on this blog anyway. I wonder what your grandma’s frosting was? I’ll have to think on that…

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

        1. Mmm…maybe. It’s the “fudge” that throws me off. That implies fat and plenty of it!

          – Joe

          1. Oh, I interpreted the word fudge to refer simply to a chewy texture, which is often what happens with a thick layer of fondant.

      1. It’s a cooked candy /white fudge monstrocity. tastes good, but nobody can get it right, and it doens’t help that the grandmother (not mine) gave out DIFFERENT recipes to everyone. one with powdered sugar, one with normal.. etc. I must say its a unique taste with the cake, but not quite the prettiest 😉 given that it never comes out the way she had made it. I can always ask for a assemblage of the recipes for trial and error.

          1. I’ve linked the 7 min frosting to them. From descriptions that may be it.. not sure yet…. 😉

  7. Are bugs kosher, you wonder? Heh, heh — ask a simple yes/no question, and get ready for the complications!

    Actually, the simple answer is: no, bugs are not kosher. However, there is a question (more intellectual than practical) about locusts. I don’t think there is a question about any other bug, just locusts, because they are actually mentioned in the bible. Below are a couple of interesting things I found, the first one fairly straightforward, the second one taking the whole question to another realm. Enjoy.

    (Joe — please use your own discretion about whether or not to include this in the comments section. I thought you might find it interesting.)

  8. Hi Joe

    I posted elsewhere on your site that I am allergic to the synthetic red dyes used in lipsticks–they cause severe burning immediately, and my lips peel as though horribly sunburned the next day. So, I worry about red dyes for a very good reason. You are absolutely right that many botanical colorants are not popular with food manufacturers because they aren’t very shelf stable. For example the red in red cabbage or beets is indeed sensitive to acid, so if I try to add lemon juice to an icing tinted with a color based on these natural pigments, it will turn a pink or paler shade. So… I usually tint with frozen (thawed) cranberry juice concentrate, which depending on strength can deliver a pink to bright pink-red shade and is NOT affected by acid. It also adds a nice flavor zip to frostings. I have a number of posts about how to use natural botanical colors for pastry decorating on my site, Peeps who are interested should check out my dye-free decorating posts/recipes.

    1. That’s very helpful, Nancy. I’m sure a lot of readers will be interested. Thanks again!

      – Joe

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