artificial colors

Artificial colors in baked macarons

Artificial Colors

What are Artificial Colors?

Artificial colors are produced synthetically to dye and enhance most foods and beverages. Also known as certified colors, artificial color additives must be approved by the FDA. They are used far more often than natural colors in the food industry, due to to a lower cost, longer shelf life and higher reliability than natural dyes.1

Color additives play a key role in product appeal, adding expected color and a perception of taste or sweetness. From bright and vivid “extreme colors,” to muted pastels, a variety of hues can be accomplished from these additives. However, only seven straight synthetic colors are approved by the FDA to use in food, all associated with a number.


Since ancient civilizations, foods have been colored with a variety of plants, minerals, and animals, such as mulberries or copper ores. Natural sources were the only coloring agent used until halfway through the 1800s. Then William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic dye in 1865 – a purple tint named mauve. Many others were soon produced, synthesised from coal tar.

The boom of processed food in the industrial revolution created a need for more stable and enticing colors in food. The process of preserving and storing products reduced the natural color, so dyes were added to compensate. Federal regulation of color additives began in the 1880s, starting with butter and cheese. Of the many dyes used, most were found to be unsafe for human consumption. By 1931, only 15 straight dyes could be used in food. The list was narrowed down after increased regulation in the 1960s.

Commercial Production

Artificial colors dyes are produced in powder, granule or liquid form. Most are made with the raw materials synthesised from petroleum. The color of the dye is achieved by the azo-groups and various substituents that are selected for the process. Red colors are produced by an aniline derivative and a naphthol derivative reaction. Yellow colors are made with acetoacetanilide and heterocyclic compounds. Blue is a result of benzidine derivative replacing the aniline derivative.2

Lakes, a type of color additive that is less soluble form, are made through a longer process. The dye is precipitated onto an insoluble base, such as aluminum hydroxide. The base absorbs the color, and is then dried and ground.3


Artificial colors can achieve bright and reliable hues, without impacting the product’s taste or stability substantially. They are also less expensive than natural colors, due to their relatively cheap production and starting materials.

There are two main types of color additives used in food production:4

  • Dyes, which are water solvent and sold as powders, granules or liquids. They are most commonly used in beverages, dry mixes, baked goods, dairy products, jams, pudding, pie filling, yogurt, etc.
  • Lakes, which do not dissolve in water. A much more stable product than dyes, they are used in food with fats and oils that have less liquid. Lakes are used in coloring coated tablets, cake mix, donut mix, cheese, margarine, etc.

The seven FDA food certified color additives are:

         Red 40, or Allura Red AC, produces red. Molecular formula: C18H14N2Na2O8S2

         Red #3, or Erythrosine, produces pink. Molecular formula: C17H13N3O3

         Yellow 5, or Tartrazine, produces yellow. Molecular formula: C16H9N4Na3O9S2

         Yellow 6, or Sunset Yellow FCF, produces orange. Molecular formula: C16H10N2Na2O7S2

         Blue #1, or Brilliant Blue FCF, produces blue.  Molecular formula: C37H34N2Na2O9S3

         Blue #2, or Indigotine, produces indigo.  Molecular formula: C16H8N2Na2O8S2

         Green #3, or Fast Green FCF,  produces turquoise. Molecular formula: C37H34N2Na2O10S3

Two artificial colors are used in the coloring of the outside of food, but not the inside. Citrus Red #2 is used to color the skin of oranges and Orange B colors the skin of frankfurters or sausages.

FDA Regulation

The FDA certifies all batches of color additives before they can be sold. That includes all synthetic dyes, lakes and pigments. The testing includes an evaluation of physical appearance and at least 10 chemical analyses. No FDA GRAS exemption can be given to the definition of a color additive.

The FDA certifies batches into three categories, depending on how they are made and how they can be used. FD&C may be used to color foods, drugs and cosmetics. D&C may only be used in drugs and cosmetics. Ext. D&C are used in drugs and cosmetics applied externally. Click here for a list of artificial color additives approved by the FDA.


1. Batista, Ana Paula, Anabela Raymundo, Isabel Sousa, José Empis, and José Maria Franco. “Colored Food Emulsions—Implications of Pigment Addition on the Rheological Behavior and Microstructure.” Food Biophysics 1.4 (2006): 216-27.
2. Liu, Lingfei, Zhang Yulan, and Xuhong Qian. “Synthesis and Peroxidase-staining Properties of Novel Water Soluble Polyhydroxylalkyl Benzidine Dyes.” Dyes and Pigments 60.1 (2004): 17-21.
3. Lobo, M., J. Patel, G. Kamins, R. Francis, B. Breza, and R. Jerzewski. “Interaction of Omapatrilat with FD&C Blue No. 2 Lake during Dissolution of Modified Release Tablets.” International Journal of Pharmaceutics 339.1-2 (2007): 168-74.
4. Griffiths, James C. “Coloring Foods and Beverages.” Food Technology 59.5 (2005): n. pag.