Cheescake can be the source of many food reactions

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Food Colourings

A food colouring is any substance that is added to food to change or enhance its colour. They can be natural or synthetic, being derived from plants, herbs or insects. While some colourings are harmless to most, a few can can produce reactions to a minority.

Their purpose

Since we associate colours with certain flavours, manufacturers use these additives to make us associate their colour with the flavour it perceives. They are used in anything, from wine gums to red wine. Sometimes the aim is to simulate a natural colour as perceived by the consumer, such as adding red colouring to glacé cherries (which would otherwise be beige).

Although strict food regulations such as those in UK and EU, and Australia pass these colours as safe for use with food, there is a growing minority that believes the effects of colourings have not been well enough researched and consider their use an unnecessary risk. The US FDA receives compensation for every pound of food dye it certifies (not inspects), which many see as a conflict of interest in regard to the safety of these dyes.

Colour variation in foods throughout season and the effects of processing and storing often make colour addition a commercial advantage to maintain the colour expected or preferred by the consumer. Some of the primary reasons include:

  • Offsetting colour loss due to light, air, extremes of temperature, moisture, and the storage conditions.
  • Masking natural variations in colour.
  • Enhancing naturally occurring colours.
  • Providing identity to foods.
  • Protecting flavours and vitamins from damage by light.

Natural food dyes

Not all colours are synthetic. Some of them are very natural indeed, such as the caramel found in Cola fizzy drinks, which is made from caramelized sugar. Chlorella is green, and derived from algae while (get ready for this) Cochineal is a red dye derived from cochineal insects which is used as well In cosmetics. Several colourings are derived from plants or herbs, such as Beet juice, turmeric, saffron and paprika.

Health problems

Many colourings have been banned from use in food due to safety concerns, but there still remain some approved colourings that concern some people.

To give a few examples, it is thought that a small percentage (0.01%) of people may be allergic to Tartrazine (coal-tar derivative) and causes hives. Many of the artificial food colourings are suspected to cause reactions ranging from hyperactivity to depression to asthma-like symptoms in sensitive individuals especially children. Norway has banned all products containing coal tar and coal tar derivatives.

Number Name Comments
E100 Cur cumin orange-yellow colour; derived from the root of the curcuma (turmeric) plant, but can be artificially produced; used in cheese, margarine, baked sweets and fish fingers
E101 Riboflavin, Riboflavin-5'-phosphate 'Vitamin B2' and colour; occurs naturally in green vegs, eggs, milk, liver and kidney; used in margarine and cheese
E102 Tartrazine FD&C Yellow No.5; known to provoke asthma attacks (though the US FDA** do not recognise this) and urticaria (nettle rash) in children (the US FDA** estimates 1:10 000); also linked to thyroid tumours, chromosomal damage, urticaria (hives) and hyperactivity; tartrazine sensitivity is also linked to aspirin sensitivity; used to colour drinks, sweets, jams, cereals, snack foods, canned fish, packaged soups; banned in Norway and Austria
E104 Quinoline Yellow FD&C Yellow No.10; used in lipsticks hair products, colognes; also in a wide range of medications; cause dermatitis; banned in USA and Norway
E107 Yellow 7G yellow colour; the HACSG* recommends to avoid it; people who suffer Asthma may also show an allergic reaction to it; typical products are soft drinks; banned in Australia and USA
E110 Sunset Yellow FCF, Orange Yellow S FD&C Yellow No.6; used in cereals, bakery, sweets, snack foods, ice cream, drinks and canned fish; synthetic; also in many medications including Polaramine, Ventolin syrup; side effects are urticaria (hives), rhinitis (runny nose), nasal congestion, allergies, hyperactivity, kidney tumours, chromosomal damage, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, indigestion, distaste for food; seen increased incidence of tumours in animals; banned in Norway
E120 Cochineal, Carminic acid, Carmines red colour; made from insects; rarely used; the HASCG* recommends to avoid it
E122 Azorubine, Carmoisine red colour; coal tar derivative; can produce bad reactions in asthmatics and people allergic to aspirin; typical products are confectionary, marzipan, jelly crystals; banned in Sweden, USA, Austria and Norway  
E123 Amaranth FD&C Red No.2; derived from the small herbaceous plant of the same name; used in cake mixes, fruit-flavoured fillings, jelly crystals; can provoke asthma, eczema and hyperactivity; it caused birth defects and foetal deaths in some animal tests, possibly also cancer; banned in the USA, Russia, Austria and Norway and other countries
E124 Ponceau 4R, Cochineal Red A FD&C Red No.4; synthetic coal tar and azo dye, carcinogen in animals, can produce bad reactions in asthmatics and people allergic to aspirin; banned in USA & Norway
E127 Erythrosine FD&C Red No.3; red colour used in cherries, canned fruit, custard mix, sweets, bakery, snack foods; can cause sensitivity to light; can increase thyroid hormone levels and lead to hyperthyroidism, was shown to cause thyroid cancer in rats in a study in 1990; banned in January 1990, but not recalled by the US FDA**; banned in Norway
E128 Red 2G Banned in Australia and many other places except UK
E129 Allura red AC FD&C Red No.40; Orange-red colour used in sweets, drinks and condiments, medications and cosmetics, synthetic; introduced in the early eighties to replace amaranth which was considered not safe due to conflicting test results; allura red has also been connected with cancer in mice; banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and Norway
E131 Patent blue V Banned in Australia, USA and Norway
E132 Indigotine, Indigo carmine FD&C Blue No.2, commonly added to tablets and capsules; also used in ice cream, sweets, baked goods, confectionary, biscuits, synthetic coal tar derivative; may cause nausea, vomiting, high blood pressure, skin rashes, breathing problems and other allergic reactions. Banned in Norway
E133 Brilliant blue FCF FD&C Blue Dye No.1; used in dairy products, sweets and drinks, synthetic usually occurring as aluminium lake (solution) or ammonium salt; banned in Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Norway
E140 Chlorophylis, Chlorophyllins green colour occurs naturally in all plants; used for dyeing waxes and oils, used in medicines and cosmetics
E141 Copper complexes of chloropyll and chlorophyllins olive colour, no adverse effects are known
E142 Green S green colour; synthetic coal tar derivative; used in canned peas, mint jelly and sauce, packet bread crumbs and cake mixes; banned in Sweden, USA and Norway
E150(a) Plain caramel dark brown colour made from sucrose; the HACSG* recommends to avoid it. used in oyster, soy, fruit and canned sauces, beer, whiskey, biscuits, pickles
E150(b) Caustic sulphite caramel see E150(a)
E150(c) Ammonia caramel see E150(a)
E150(d) Sulphite ammonia caramel see E150(a)
E151 Brilliant Black BN, Black PN coloor; coal tar derivative; used in brown sauces, blackcurrant cake mixes; banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, USA, Norway
E153 Vegetable carbon black colour, charcoal pigment; used in jams, jelly crystals, liquorice; only the vegetable derived variety permitted in Australia, banned in the United States
E154 Brown FK banned in USA
E155 Brown HT (Chocolate) brown colour, coal tar and azo dye; used in chocolate cake mixes; can produce bad reactions in asthmatics and people allergic to aspirin; also known to induce skin sensitivity; banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, USA, Norway
E160(a) Carotene, alpha-, beta-, gamma- orange-yellow colour; human body converts it to 'Vitamin A' in the liver, found in carrots and other yellow or orange fruits and vegetables
E160(b) Annatto (Arnatto, Annato), bixin, norbixin red colour; derived from a tree (Bixa orellana); used as a body paint, fabric dye, digestive aid and expectorant; used to dye cheese, butter, margarine, cereals, snack foods, soaps, textiles and varnishes; known to cause urticaria (nettle rash), the HACSG* recommends to avoid it
E160(c) Paprika extract, capsanthin, capsorubin red colour derived from red peppers.
E160(d) Lycopene red coloured carotenoid found in tomatoes and pink grapefruit, can cause decreasing risk of cancer
E160(e) Beta-apo-8'-carotenal (C 30) orange colour, no adverse effects are known
E160(f) Ethyl ester of beta-apo-8'-carotenic acid (C 30) orange colour, no adverse effects are known
E161(b) Xanthophylls - Lutein yellow colour derived from plants, naturally found in green leaves, marigolds and egg yolks
E161(g) Xanthophylls - Canthaxanthin yellow colour possibly derived from animal sources (retinol); the pigment is found in some mushrooms, crustacea, fish, flamingo feathers
E162 Beetroot Red, Betanin purple colour derived from beets; no adverse effects are known
E163 Anthocyanins violet colour matter of flowers and plants; seems safe
E170 Calcium carbonate mineral salt, used in toothpastes, white paint and cleaning powders; may be derived from rock mineral or animal bones; sometimes used to deacidify wines and firm canned fruit and veg.; toxic at 'high doses'
E171 Titanium dioxide white colour used in toothpaste and white paint, pollutes waterways; no adverse effects are known
E172 Iron oxides and hydroxides black, yellow, red colour used in salmon and shrimp pastes; toxic at 'high doses'
E173 Aluminium avoid it, banned in some countries
E174 Silver avoid it, banned in some countries
E175 Gold avoid it, banned in some countries
E180 Latolrubine BK avoid it, banned in some countries
E181 Tannic acid, tannins clarifying agent in alcohol; derived from the nutgalls and twigs of oak trees; occurs naturally in tea

* Hyperactive Children Support Group (HACSG)
** Food and Drug Administration (U.S.)

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