How Natural Is "All Natural" Food Coloring?

All natural food coloring is way better for you than artificial color, right? But have you ever wondered just where all natural colors come from? Everyday Einstein digs deep to find the surprising answer.

Lee Falin, PhD
3-minute read
Episode #70

If you ask most conscientious food shoppers, you’ll find that many of them prefer foods with no artificial colors - especially since artificial colors have a history of turning out to be really bad for you. But have you ever wondered just where “all-natural” food colors come from? The answer might surprise you.

Ew, Bugs!

Probably the most infamous of natural colors is carmine. Carmine comes from mixing certain kinds of salt with carminic acid. Carminic acid is harvested (all naturally) by crushing up tiny insects called cochineals, which use carminic acid to ward off predators. (Apparently it doesn’t work against dye-manufacturers). The dye is used in all kinds of things from juices to candy to lipstick. 

Most recently there was a public outcry when someone discovered it was being used in a certain brand of strawberry yogurt in order to give the yogurt more of a strawberry color.  (Actual strawberries apparently weren’t doing a good enough job of this). If you check the nutrition label on your favorite food, you probably won’t see “crushed bugs” on the ingredient list, and you might not even see the word “carmine.” Other common names for this dye include cochineal extract, crimson lake, natural red 4, and (in the EU) E120.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Another common “all natural” dye in foods is chlorophyllin. If that name reminds you of the chlorophyll you learned about in school, you’d definitely be on the right track. Chlorophyllin is a green food dye derived from plants, especially algae like chlorella. In fact, you might be tempted to think that when you’re eating this stuff, you’re eating pure chlorophyll, and that must be healthy, right?

Chlorophyll is processed to replace a magnesium atom at its center with a copper atom, which makes it more stable and also able to dissolve in water. 

Well, unfortunately, chlorophyll itself is rather unstable, meaning it breaks down quickly when exposed to things like air and sunlight. Plants have to continually synthesize it in order to stay green. Once they stop making chlorophyll (such as you often see in the autumn months), the chlorophyll breaks down quickly and their leaves turn other colors.

So in order to make sure green food coloring doesn’t fade away, we have to change it around a bit. The chlorophyll is processed to replace a magnesium atom at its center with a copper atom, which makes it more stable and also able to dissolve in water. Despite all of this processing, the dye is still considered all natural by the FDA, and on ingredient lists will be called either chlorophyllin, copper complex chlorophyllin, natural green 3, or E141. 

You might be tempted to think that all of this atom-swapping must make chlorophyllin bad for you, but there’s actually evidence that it is quite good for you. This is fortunate, because this dye is found in lots of foods, including certain kinds of cheese, ice cream, and most green-looking sauces. 

Hey, Carrots!

A more well known natural dye is carotene, which (as its name suggests) comes from carrots. You might also have heard it referred to as beta-carotene. This dye is used to give things a yellow-orange color. You’ll typically find beta-carotene used as a dye in butter and margarine to help them look more like butter, or rather to make them look more like what people think butter and margarine are supposed to look like.

Despite the fact that it can be found in carrots and some other naturally occurring places, most commercial beta-carotene is synthesized in factories. You’ll typically find this dye labeled beta-carotene, carotene, or E160a.

So now you know more about where your “all-natural” dyes come from. Despite the fact that these dyes maybe don't sound as healthy as you might have believed, take comfort in the fact that they are still way better than artificial colors.

Would You Like Dyes with That?

But why dye foods at all?

Because over the years consumers have been conditioned to associate certain colors with good quality and healthy foods. Since manufacturers want you to buy their foods, they’re happy to paint them any color you want. 

If you liked today’s episode, you can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Carrots 2 image, Tracy O at Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

About the Author

Lee Falin, PhD

Dr. Lee Falin earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology from Virginia Tech.