The Truth Behind Your Red Foods Is To Dye For
In gas stations across the country, you can still find unnaturally pigmented products like Mountain Dew and Pixie Stix, but the appeal of these harsh hues is rapidly fading. Such edible abominations as these are vestiges of what I would deem the most extreme era of food coloring: the 90s. Prepubescent me sipped my way through such hits as Hi-C’s Ecto Cooler, in a shade meant to recreate the green goo of Slimer from Ghostbusters, and the disgustingly named Squeezits, which were sugary “fruit” drinks packaged in wasteful soft plastic bottles meant for chugging. These were the red hot days of kid food, before the average parent got wise to our cartoon-driven indoctrination courtesy of the packaged food industry. Advertisers haven’t quite given up, but when mandarin oranges are being pushed instead of SunnyD, someone’s doing something right.
While I was aware of the slow switch to more natural food coloring over my lifetime, I still wasn’t clear about the providence of these paler pigments. So as I recently sat drinking an infinitely more mature beverage choice — Campari and soda — I wondered to myself, “How do they get this color?" Naturally, I took out my phone and tapped my query out to the internet: "What makes Campari red?" Scanning, I found that there are three possibilities: carminic acid, plant based pigments, or artificial dyes. Then, as industrial food coloring is the pursuit of natural pigments via unnatural processes, I learned that each one has its own innate set of problems.
Carminic acid is derived from the cochineal bug, a species native to Central and South America that parasitically thrives on the prickly pear cactus. As far back as the 12th century, indigenous people of North, Central, and South America have harvested and domesticated the insects to produce an intense red dye. Once the little bugs find the cactus pad of their dreams (or are introduced by a farmer), the females burrow into a sweet little spot for themselves and never budge again as they lay their eggs and sip what must be darn good sap from the plant. In fact, female cochineals evolved to produce carminic acid to rebuff natural predators like ants — they are just trying to chill, okay? But this insect version of resting bitch face turned out to be irresistible to a different predator: man. Their #stationarylife makes them easy to cultivate, though collecting them is labor-intensive — they are so tiny that nearly 70,000 cochineal bugs are needed to produce one pound of dye. Harvesters scrape the the mature female insects off cactus pads with brushes, dry them, and grind them into a powder; to create pure carmine pigment, they are then boiled and treated with a dye fixative called alum.
Incredibly, this tiny bug has had an outsized impact on history. Back in the 1500s, Hernán Cortés (cochineal enthusiast and overthrower of the Aztec empire) was keen to turn a profit from Spain’s colonies and began sending the dye back to Madrid. Cochineal created the most vibrant red around and Europeans were there for it. The color of power, the red trend in Europe encompassed the deep red color of the cloaks of Roman Catholic cardinals and the redcoats of the British army, and continued to influence art through the 1800s, as seen in works by Gauguin, Renoir, van Gogh, and Rembrandt. For almost 300 years, Spain maintained a monopoly on the production of cochineal red, which they used for trade, and profited off the labor of the indigenous farmers. Demand for cochineal began to diminish in the mid-1800s with the development of cheaper, synthetic red dyes. Today, it frequently tints foods and cosmetics, as it is safer to ingest than synthetics. The production process remains virtually unchanged, but on product labels it can be listed as carminic acid, carmine, cochineal extract, natural red 4, crimson lake, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, E120, or simply even “natural coloring.” However, this ingredient is neither vegan, kosher, or halal, making it problematic for some consumers and forcing brands to look for alternatives.
My Campari, it turns out, is colored with a synthetic dye. Just as cochineal use diminished for textiles, this liqueur was invented by Gaspare Campari in 1860 and used carmine dye to achieve its vibrant red coloring. Bottles used to be labeled with the phrase “contains carmine,” but in 2006, Groupo Campari quietly ceased using it in its US production (production may vary for distribution in other countries). Lore has it that vegan outrage forced the change, but the company recently told Daily Beast, “Due to unpredictable fluctuations in both supply and quality, the company chose to no longer use carmine as it embarked on becoming a global brand.”
Price and production are the main reasons brands move to artificial coloring. Synthetic dyes can be carefully controlled, mass-produced, and usually have a longer shelf life. Only one such red dye, Allura Red AC (aka FD&C Red No. 40) is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for use in cosmetics, drugs, and food. Red No. 40 may not contain cochineal bugs, but as a vegan with concern for overall environmental impact, I was dismayed to find that it is derived from petroleum or crude oil. Even more disturbing, it may be linked to cancer as it contains benzidine, a human and animal carcinogen permitted in low, “presumably safe” levels by the FDA — in 1985, they found that ingestion of free benzidine raises the cancer risk to just under the “concern” threshold (1 cancer in 1 million people). There is also a fairly large body of evidence that artificial dyes cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children, aka the cohort the most egregiously dyed products are marketed to. The European Union is more strict about artificial ingredients, and Red 40 is used far less there because its safety is still questionable. Take Fanta Orange soda for instance: the US version contains artificial Red 40 and Yellow 6, while the European version is colored with pumpkin and carrot extracts — yup, even soda is more sophisticated in the EU. So does this mean that plant-based extracts are safer and more sustainable?
If you’re like me, the idea of natural dyes probably conjures up whole plants and roots. Being an avid cook, I know how frustratingly stubborn the pigment of tomato sauce and turmeric can be — RIP my favorite kitchen towel. And while natural materials like annatto, saffron, paprika, and beets can create deep and beautiful dyes, simple preparations are often not suitably stable for commercial food preparation. The process varies for each dye. For example, beets already have excellent light and pH stability and need little processing; grape skin extract (enocianina) requires sulphur dioxide and vacuum evaporation but also reuses the excess material left after pressing juice or wine products; and a company called LycoRed produces products derived from carotenoids sourced from tomatoes and beta-carotene derived from a type of mold. None of these preparations are necessarily bad but neither should we be led to believe that brands are using nutritionally whole foods as coloring. I would say we should be cautiously positive now that manufacturers are addressing customer preference for more natural alternatives.
Vegan and non-vegan consumers alike are increasingly more vigilant about what they ingest. A 2015 Nielsen Survey found that about 40% of global respondents say the absence of artificial colors and flavors is important to them, with foods derived from vegetables and fruits deemed very important. In 2012, vegan consumers reached mythic status when, via change.org, they petitioned Starbucks to stop using cochineal in their Strawberry Frappuccinos and Smoothies — and they did! Over 6,000 people signed on and the company responded by reformulating the beverage base with a LycoRed product called Tomat-O-Red®. This lycopene compound is derived from California-grown, non-GMO tomatoes and is vegan, kosher, and halal certified, making it the most formidable competitor of both cochineal and synthetic dyes.
Right about now, you are probably thinking: well, what am I supposed to do? One can only take so many food revelations before you wonder, what can I have? You used to be able to sip Mountain Dew Code Red and not have to know how it came to be so...red. I thought the same, dear reader, plus: will I now have to drink naturally colored rosé *shudder* instead of Campari? First, know that the use of pigments to color foods is not a new concept. Even the argument against dyes is not modern. All the way back in 1396, a French act prohibited the artificial tinting of butter, and a 1574 French law made it illegal to add color to pastries to falsely indicate the presence of eggs. The situation got heated in 1820 when Friedrich Accum ye olde trolled London food manufacturers when he published A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons. His lab experiments revealed such atrocities as sweets colored with vermillion and beer laced with opium, as well as less harmful food forgeries. Things have significantly improved since Freddie’s time though. In 1906, the US passed the Pure Food and Drug Act which loosely ruled the safety of food dyes until its enforcement was handed over to the Food and Drug Administration, which was established in 1927. Following an incident of illness involving children and popcorn colored with the very natural sounding 1-2% FD&C Orange #1 in 1950, a toxicological investigation was ordered and the Color Additive Amendments of 1960 further restricted dye use. Today, just three — Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 — account for 90% of all dyes used. The FDA, which tracks the amounts of dye used, shows a five-fold increase in consumption since 1955. The simple reason is that we today rely heavily on processed foods such as cereal, snack foods, bottled drinks, and baked goods that are colored with dyes.
This is the second thing I want you to know: much of the controversy around dyes can be avoided by reducing our intake of processed foods. What I didn’t bring up earlier is that with processing, synthetic and even natural food colorings must be tested for safety. This testing will always include animal studies — often mice, rats, and rabbits, or in the case of past Red No. 40 studies, dogs. Yes, good doggos were fed radio-labeled Allura Red AC to see how it metabolized in their bodies so food companies could recolor colorless processed foods as Chucklin' Cherry or something. We can ask brands to do better, but we have to do better, too. Even as consumers pay lip service to the idea that we prefer natural colors and flavors, our bright red Kool-aid ‘stache gives our true intentions away. Companies continue making artificial trash food because it is cheap and we keep buying it. What I’m asking you to consider is: what if you didn’t? What if you mixed up some water with fresh fruit? (Haha, kidding. Ditch the water for wine and make sangria.) Or what if you blended up a strawberry smoothie with, ya know, strawberries and told Starbucks nah. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t indulge in some “me time” with a red velvet cupcake, but maybe cut down a bit on the pre-made, processed food. And, as you now know more than you ever wanted to about red dye, take a peek at the label before you scarf it down, and see what you are putting into your awesome bod. I know I will think twice before I order another glass of Campari. *Ashamedly sips rosé and loves it.*