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.

14 thoughts on “The Dark Days of Color”

  1. (Name refers to the pastry blogger not the former football guy.)

    It takes more then regs. It takes enforcement and the money and will to enforce. Which appear seriously absent in the food system — anywhere. The latest stories, of course, EU horse meat and this:

    I’m thrilled to know that when I scrape together the $ for the rare piece of wild salmon I’m not only not getting the healthy and more sustainable fish, I’m getting seriously ripped off in the process. Of course there appear to be no consequences to food fraud. So it will go on.

    A bit of the pastry topic so thank you for allowing my semi-rant.

    1. I do fish en croute from time to time!

      Thanks for the comment, JoPa Fan!

      – Joe

  2. PS, I didn’t want to argue with you personally but this sounds like something some food industry talking mouth would say:

    “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. ”

    How about no fraud in what you are selling for starters. Then we can get to whether it is safe.

    1. I take no offense, JoPa Fan. Indeed I am frequently a mouthpiece, not for the food industry writ large (there’s not such job), but for various food makers and growers, large and small. I’ve helped organic herb farmers get their businesses going and been deeper inside McDoonald’s than Eric Schlosser ever dreamed of going. It’s the information I pick up in my travels through the world of food that I share here on Joe Pastry (this week, from the conventional and organic color makers I’ve worked with and for).

      No question there are some bad actors out there. There always are, just like there’s always crime in Louisville, the city where I live. I noticed in the paper this morning that a drug and gun ring was busted in the southern metro area. That fact certainly doesn’t prove that everyone who lives in Louisville is a drug and gun smuggler. The vast majority of us are good and hardworking people. Just so with food makers, most of whom work as hard as they can every day to bring is safe, high quality food. I’m proud to help them do what they do!

      Thanks again, JoPa!

      – Joe

  3. That makes me wonder – did all those heavy metals help keep food from spoiling (at least the inevitable brain damage tastes good, right?), or were the concentrations too low?

    (By the way, I’d rather find out I ate horse meat than lead chromate. It’s kind of horrifying to think that my watercolor paints were once used as food additives.)

  4. I think our education and awareness can’t hurt. Not saying all our knowledge keeps us completely safe any more than a security system or the best police force in the country can stop all crime or keep us from being a victim but I think it is harder to fool someone who is more aware of what can happen. Let’s hope so. Certainly takes your appetite away realizing how bad it can be. Glad we have gotten better standards but we still need to keep our heads and not be too trusting. Thanks for the food color history lesson. An eye-opener for sure!

  5. Joe, I think those bad old days are coming back. As the USDA is gutted in the name of smaller government the food industry relies more and more on cheap ingredients from China. They have demonstrated a willingness to kill their own for the sake of a Yaun and our American companies a willingness to ignore that for the sake of a buck.

    The result has been a series of incidents discovered and lard only knows how many undiscovered ones. We are killing ourselves in the name of “freedom” and the “free market”. The time we could rely on our food supply to maintain some level of safety are slipping away.

  6. I think part of the problem is that, as visual creatures, we are pulled towards the ‘bright and shiny’ (and thus the marketing towards that). Which drives the makers to go for brighter and shinier… and the vicious cycle continues.

    I personally prefer no artificial colors, though the whole ‘artificial’ becomes a bit hazy as I learn more. Regardless, I’m learning more from blogs like this about presentation and flavor (without pesky coloring additives) than I’ve known in the past, and to that I say bravo!

  7. Hi Joe,
    The most compelling argument I know AGAINST eating synthetic food dyes is that we are now ingesting them in large quantities because sooo many products, even “healthful” juices and waters, are tinted with them. It’s said we’re consuming 50 times more than in the 1950s. Also, I personally developed a serious topical allergy to the red dye in almost all lipsticks–same or similar to ones approved for use in our food. Also, there is some evidence that some approved dyes make some kids hyperactive. So, I’ve begun using only botanical colors in pastry decorating–with great results IMHO. Just did some very pretty, dye-free decorated heart cookies for Valentines, will be posting some colorful iced shamrock cookies soon. For those interested in some details:

  8. Dear Joe,
    Your posts on food coloring are indeed great and informative, and if you say that food dyes are more or less safe, I can only trust you. But I haven’ t understand the very basics of food coloring yet – what are the mentioned coal tar dyes, how are they made, from where the pigment comes and how it is stored and transfered to our food etc. Can you maybe give some insight in these topics as well?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *