Kool-Aid red doesn’t come from cherries — it comes from petroleum distillates. As consumers become increasingly apprehensive about mystery ingredients in their snacks, large companies have responded by rethinking their color palette.
Our story starts in 1906 when the Pure Food and Drug Act established the first restrictions on artificial food dyes in the United States. Over the next few decades, researchers uncovered human health risks associated with many of these chemical additives and only 15 synthetic colors were approved by the FDA for human consumption by 1938. Today, that number has dwindled to seven colors, though they can be blended to produce a much wider variety.
Although the government maintains that these seven additives, which are made by synthesizing raw materials from petroleum, are safe to ingest, some consumers remain skeptical. A number of researchers have studied the possible connection between artificial colors and hyperactivity in children, but most have received inconclusive results. In the 1970s, Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a pediatric allergist from California, began prescribing diets free of artificial colors, among other restrictions, and claimed to have successfully treated symptoms of hyperactivity. But, little evidence since then suggests that there is a causal relationship.
Large food corporations are increasingly moving away from artificial ingredients and food dyes have been some of the first to disappear from their labels. General Mills announced that they would remove all artificial ingredients within two years in 2015. The company has been unsuccessful in replicating the blue and green hues in their iconic Trix cereal, so they have decided to omit those colors from the new iteration. Taco Bell has removed Yellow No. 6 from nacho cheese and Blue No. 1 from avocado ranch dressing. Kraft also removed synthetic colors from Macaroni and Cheese after being targeted by consumer advocacy groups. As demand for recognizable ingredients grows, producers are forced to respond.
These juggernauts of processed food are working on alternatives to the petrochemicals you ingest when you “taste the rainbow.” Mars, which encompasses over 50 brands (including Skittles) announced in February 2016 that it would drop artificial colors from all food products. According to Mars, it will likely take five years to find suitable replacements from natural sources. Will Papa, the chief research and development officer at Hershey, told The Daily Mail that food companies “have to deliver bold colors and flavors or else people will stop buying.” Such is why naturally colored candies and cereals are going to be spending more time in the test kitchen before they reach our pantries.
Most coloring substitutes are derived from fruits, vegetables, and spices. Mars petitioned to use spirulina in their products to achieve blue tones, which the FDA recently approved. Other dyes being tested come from turmeric, beets, paprika, and annatto. But, natural colors are harder to work into recipes than their stabler, artificial counterparts. Plant-derived colors have higher sensitivity to heat and acidity, cost more, and must be used in larger quantities.
We know that sight plays a significant role in the experience of eating, which makes color so important. A study in which participants were given colorless Cheetos, showed that the absence of bright orange cheese dust made people perceive the taste as bland. Similarly, when handed vanilla pudding colored with a tasteless, yellow dye, consumers said it tasted like banana or lemon, and assumed white pudding flavored with mango was vanilla. Imagine unwrapping a Jolly Rancher to find a translucent beige nugget in place of the expected bright red or blue. Advocates of keeping artificial dyes in food products have leveraged this phenomenon to defend their case. Kantha Shelke, a food chemist and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, is one of these proponents, asserting that “color is such a crucial part of the eating experience that banning dyes would take much of the pleasure out of life.”
While petroleum-based dyes are likely unrelated to hyperactivity, we still don’t have a solid grasp on what their long-term health effects might be. Most foods containing artificial colors also contain a myriad of other artificial ingredients, making it hard to pinpoint them specifically when dealing with issues of adverse health effects.
We do, however, know that processed food corporations prioritize profit over all else and, in the case of brilliantly colored candies and cereals, their target consumer base is predominantly elementary school children. When kids grow up learning that tasty food comes in aqua and chartreuse, they will likely carry those expectations with them later in life, making them less likely to choose whole fruits and vegetables over more visually exciting processed options.
Mars and its contemporaries are letting go of artificial ingredients due to consumer demand for greater transparency and healthier ingredients. Trix Cereal still won’t be the healthiest breakfast item on the shelf (there are 10g of sugar per cup), but its new, slightly toned down aesthetic represents a step in the right direction.