Synthetic Food Colouring – We Need More Info!


This post is sponsored by Nuffnang.

Smarties: The Fountain
{Image by gadl}
There were over 350 responses to the food colouring survey conducted last month on the blog, which was a fantastic result. Thank you to everyone who took the time to complete it.

The overwhelming message in the results was there needs to be more more information provided about synthetic colouring in food products and their impact on children. 62.4% of parents said they noticed changes in their children’s behaviour after digesting foods which contain synthetic colouring.

But like myself 83.7% of parents surveyed were concerned about what synthetic food colourings are made from, but 64.6% of us did not know what synthetic food colourings are made from.

Acceptable daily intake level of synthetic food colouring

94.9% of parents (me included) did not know that there are in fact acceptable daily intake levels of synthetic food colouring which is considered safe for children.

What additives are permitted in foods are controlled by the Food Standards Code Australia & NZ. Colours permitted singly or in combination to a total maximum level of 290 mg/kg in processed foods and to a total maximum level of 70 mg/L in beverages other than beverages specified in Schedule 1.

But this is standard is difficult to work out when you are at the supermarket with your kids! Making this information easier to understand and more accessible is important to parents.

The difference between natural and artificial ingredients

Natural ingredients are derived from natural sources (e.g., soybeans and corn provide lecithin to maintain product consistency; beets provide beet powder used as food coloring). Other ingredients are not found in nature and therefore must be synthetically produced as artificial ingredients.

Also, some ingredients found in nature can be manufactured artificially and produced more economically, with greater purity and more consistent quality, than their natural counterparts. For example, vitamin C or ascorbic acid may be derived from an orange or produced in a laboratory. Source FDA

This is what some of the synthetic colours are made from:

  • E133 Brilliant Blue is made from coal tar.
  • E132 is composed of three chemicals, with the major component being the sodium salt of Indigotindisulfonate.
  • E129 Allura Red AC is also derived from coal tar.
  • E102 tartrazine yellow is derived from coal tar.

Good Morning
{Image by Bruce W Martin II}
In the survey we looked at similar products and asked which ones had natural food colours. I can say that I didn’t get all these right!

  • a. Fanta (natural) v Sunkist (synthetic)
  • b. M&Ms (synthetic) v Smarties (natural)
  • c. Cadbury Dairy Milk Mint Bubbly (synthetic) v Nestle Aero Mint Chocolate (natural)
  • d. Kelloggs Froot Loops (synthetic) v Freedom Foods Tropicos (natural)
  • e. Arnotts Iced Vovos (synthetic) vs Paradise Foods Strawberry Mallows (natural)

Why is it then if there are safer natural alternatives that companies are not using them in their products?

Colour additives to avoid

As I noted in my first post, the European Union has much stricter regulations on food labelling than we have here in Australia. They actually have six food colourings being voluntarily phased out due the impact they have on activity and attention in children. These artificial colourings are often called the Southampton Six colours after the study which found a link between artificial colouring and child behaviour.

The six artificial colours are:

  • sunset yellow (E 110)
  • quinoline yellow (E 104)
  • carmoisine (E 122)
  • allura red (E 129)
  • tartrazine (E 102)

And the other main artificial colours used in Australia that should be avoided are:

  • Brilliant Blue (133)
  • Brown HT (155)

Reactions to natural colour 160b Annatto

Not only did parents fill in the survey, but many left in depth comments, which gave me a wealth of information. A couple of parents highlighted that their kids actually have reactions to a natural colour, colour 160b also known as Annatto.

Annatto is extracted from the seeds of a plant called Bixa orellana L. Annatto is used as a colour mainly in dairy products like cheese and margarine but can also be legally used in frozen desserts (ice cream), desserts decorations and coatings, beverages, fish products and confectionery snack products.

Annatto is one of the most widely used Natural Colours in foods globally. The use of Annatto is regulated by the Food Standards Code and it is the only Natural Colour that has a maximum dosing limit into foods. The amount allowed depends on the food type, but one of the most common uses of Annatto is in Vanilla ice cream to give the ice cream base a very slight golden/creamy colour. The amount used in this type of application is apparently extremely small.

Wikipedia has this to say about Annatto:

Annatto is not one of the “Big Eight” allergens (cow’s milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat) which are responsible for >90% of allergic food reactions. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and experts at the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska do not at present consider annatto to be a major food allergen.[20]

But from the comments left on the survey post, the experience from parents has not been with regards to allergy but behaviour.

Food labelling and signage

96.3% of parents surveyed felt that the Australian Government should follow the lead of Europe where foods containing synthetic colouring must state that the product “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”. The two biggest factors parents used to assess if the product had natural colouring were packaging and signage.

Numbers, long names and tiny writing make it difficult to make choices and this was the element that parents seemed to find most frustrating:

I am also constantly annoyed by the loopholes that exist for minimum labelling requirement (ie. if only a small amt is used it does not need to be listed in ingredients at all) and the fact that flavouring is trademarked and so is exempted from being listed also – so you never know what’s really in the flavouring! Cate from Keep Cate Busy

what i find hard is school canteen. our kids want it just because others are getting a lunch order on a friday. i really wish our canteen would clean up. the guidelines for canteens aren’t that strict and they can still stock a high percentage of food that has all sorts of crazy things in it. i would love to see restrictions and labeling laws tightened up. i am so sick of picking up a product and seeing “flavourings” listed. come on, tell us what’s really in it. when i see that it makes me think they have something to hide. Sandra from Pass the Parcel

More information

  • A number of parents also recommended the website Fed Up website which is an amazing resource on food intolerances in general. It has an excellent one page on additives to avoid starting with artificial colours through to flavour enhancers. Sue Dengate has also authored the book Fed Up which parents highly recommended.
  • The Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit has a whole section on Food Intolerances on their website, including information on the Elimination Diet.
  • There is an online petition to ban some synthetic colours in ANZ which you can add to here.

  • I have also downloaded this free app Food Additives 2. You only get 50 additives in the free version, but it does give me the list of the Southampton Six as you can see in the screen shot above. This will be handy for using at the supermarket when I am trying to make sense of the labels.

I learnt so much through doing this survey, but very much feel I have only just dipped my toe into the food additive waters. There is a real need for clear and easily accessible information for parents so they can fully understand the impact that synthetic colours can have on their kids.

Feel free to leave any other resources that may help parents understand this issue in the comments.


  1. says

    Thankyou so much for this article. Additives are something that I am very wary off, I shop with the list from fed up and try to avoid as many numbers as possible. I do find my boys are calmer when I take note of what they are eating. I can’t control what they eat everywhere, but I certainly make an effort in our own home to keep things as natural as possible.

  2. Kim says

    Great post, lots of information there, and a big thank you for specifically mentioning Annatto (160b). I commented about this natural colouring in the survey post. Often the message in these situations is to avoid synthetic because natural is better, but it’s not that black and white for some people unfortunately. The problem with the Annatto issue is that it’s not an allergic reaction (as you’ve mentioned), but an intolerance, and intolerances are treated much differently, and in my experience, with some skepticism, by the wider community. I’ve had the strange looks when I’ve told people I don’t want my child to eat something because it contains Annatto because no, they’re not allergic but their behaviour is affected and I don’t want that – the non-verbal reaction is “yeah right!”. It really is amazing just how many things Annatto can be found in – things you wouldn’t even imagine need a yellow colouring!

    • Miranda says

      …but does ANYTHING need a yellow colouring?!?!
      (I know what you mean, but my point is why do things need to be coloured anyway… like apple juice! I’ve never seen it come out of the juicer looking like strong wee!)

      • Kim says

        That’s my point! I often have to shake my head when I go through the ingredients of things that I think will be ok, only to find Annatto! I really can’t see why so many things need to have colour added to them.

  3. says

    Great Post – thanks for bringing awareness to this issue… it’s a bit scary… I try not to give my kids too much processed foods…. but like us all.. do on the occasion..

  4. says

    Fab post Nic! And I can tell you exactly why manufacturers do not use saeer natural alternatives – cost. Our government does not require the same standards as a number of overseas countries and so the manufacturer is well within their rights to simply produce the cheapest product to maximise their profits. It is our government that needs to hold the manufacturers to a higher standard for the health of our children.

  5. Holly says

    Thanks for this post, I found it very helpful! I have bookmarked it on my web browser so that I can bring it up whenenver I need to check the additives in food that I am considering giving to my children. I took your survey and felt really guilty aftererwards that I didn’t know as much as I should about food colourings and flavourings but from now on I’m going to make more of an effort to be informed about my children’s food choices.

  6. Eva says

    Very informative post Nicole. There should definately be more information available. I find it frustrating when shopping having to read the labels and not always comprehending what they mean. I believe we all try and do the right thing by providing natural, unprocessed foods for our families but we should be able to have the option with peace of mind. I’ll be sending your post on to friends.

  7. says

    Thank you so much Nicole. For someone whose child is so adversely affected by food colourings, I can’t believe I know so little. The tip on Annatto is much appreciated – shall keep an eye out. Good point Kim about intolerances. I’m having trouble getting taken seriously with birthday treats at preschool because it’s not an allergy… but as treats are shared at the end of the day, they’re not the ones having to deal with the results. My son is a bright keen boy who goes totally loopy on colourings. If I wasn’t so diligent about avoiding them all, he’d be an easy candidate for being misdiagnosed as ADHD. Keep pushing… our kids deserve to have the chance to be their best!

      • Kim says

        I’m so glad that I was able to identify one of the things that was affecting them. It’s relatively easy to avoid when you’re in control, but as Cath says, shared treats, class parties, birthdays etc all present issues. No, my child is not going to need medical attention if he eats that, but I’m going to have to deal with the behaviour later and I’d rather avoid it! Knowledge and information is power though, so get informed and I’ve found that people take you more seriously if you can give them something more than “it makes him behave badly”.

  8. says

    Reading food labels is something I’m all too familiar with due to my son’s peanut allergy & my husband having coeliac disease. Labeling for food allergies is very good in Australia, however, after reading about this study I’ll now be looking out for additives too. Sigh! why must food be so complicated? Why can’t manufacturers just use natural ingredients and label them clearly?

  9. says

    Informative and valuable info as usual – Thank you!
    I find that when I read something like this, I go on a rampage, focusing on feeding my kids healthy, whole foods only and avoiding processed items as much as possible. I even bake my own bread because store bought stuff can have a lot of nasties in it. Then slowly….I relax a little bit, feel bad that my kids are hassling me because they dont get the same type of treats in their lunch-boxes as their peers and I start getting more ‘lax’.

    I’m so on the bandwagon again :)

  10. Rachael says

    Nicole I’m wondering if you’ve come across Thermomix in your daily life. I recently purchased and will complete my consultant training today. This wonderful machine makes it possible to make food additive free very quickly, including basics like butter, bread, stock and so on.

    I went to a wonderful talk this week with Cyndi O’Meara (author of ‘Changing Habits, Changing lives’ who talks about what goes in our food and how damaging it is for our health. So many of us are aware, and yet are forced to make choices that may impact our health negatively to save time, money etc.

    You are also right to note as in 160B natural doesn’t always mean better. We all need to be aware of what we consume that isn’t actually food.

    Anyway I’m not hear to sell anything, just to add to your discussion! But if you would like anymore info just let me know.

    • says

      I haven’t but have only read great things around the blogosphere about them. I do love to cook from scratch so think it is something I should investigate!

  11. Miranda says

    ‘Additive Alert’ by Julie Eady is also a great book. It even comes with a little card you can keep in your purse with the most dangerous additives to avoid listed on it.

  12. says

    Wow Nic, congratulations on a really thorough and informative post. Like many of your readers I just despair that we ever got to this stage. Why can’t food just be food? xo

  13. says

    My My, WHY?
    Nicole, Every post you put up I am that one bit smarter/educated and hopefully that one bit better parent….all owing to you.

    THank you from teh very bottom of m heart…..and your’e doing an awesome job ‘telling the world something important” (unlike me).

    P.S Have downloaded your finances spreasheet, and will let you know how I go!

  14. says

    I discovered FedUp a few years ago as my son is sensitive to any kind of artificial colours, preservatives and flavours. Over the years I have learnt to read labels and now have discovered many things that are safe for him to eat. I have recently found HOPPERS sprinkles and make our own fairy bread and pack our own “special” lunch boxes for birthday parties.

  15. karen says

    Hi I love Sue Dengate discovered her years ago read her books and follow some of the diet . I know my 11yr can’t eat maggi 2 min noodles because of the MSG but can eat other brands, makes her talk at hundred miles. my son can’t have blue lollies and just worked out can’t have ice cream to manys days in a row his eyes glaze over and he is uncontrollable, these are the main triggers for us and very careful when shopping but highly recommend being aware.

  16. says

    Hi Nicole,
    Great article! Our children have been on a low chemical diet (off about 60 numbers) for the past 4 years. We have seen HUGE changes in their behaviour and abilities to concentrate, etc when they do have some as an odd treat. We feel 160b was responsible for much of the aggressive behavior in our autistic son. I would encourage your readers to check out Sue Dengate’s Fed Up books along with looking into the low salicylate diet which the RPA hospital’s allergy unit established. Salicylates are a whole nother ball game but it may help someone to look into them. It helped our autistic son in particular in ways we could never have imagined- it was like parts of his brain were awakened when he was on low salicylates and low chemicals.
    I hope what you’ve shared really motivates parents to advocate for their children in the area of foods.
    Cheers :-)

  17. Kath says

    I have 5 sons, 4 of whom have been diagnosed with ASD at various levels so I am always interested in information relating to diet and behaviour in kids. I know that all of my boys are adversely affected by preservatives which makes a supermarket trip a difficult experience as I have to read every label on anything new that I want to buy. I certainly think there needs to be more research into the effects on kids of all these artificial chemicals in our diet, after all it can’t be co-incidence that since the artificial “nasties’ in our food has increased that the diagnosis of ADHD and Autistic disorders has also increased.

  18. says

    Thank you so much for bringing this to the attention of parents – this is a subject close to my heart as I am a big believer in the toxicity of our environment contributing to so many of the chronic diseases, allergies and conditions we have seen emerge in children over the past 20 years. My motto: if your Grandmother couldn’t grow it, pronounce it, cook or bake it from scratch, then don’t eat it. Where did it go so wrong? There was no such thing as organic when we were kids….as food just was organic. We now have homogenised and pasteurised milk to the point of it being unrecognisable…and it is illegal to drink milk from a cow! Strawberry “flavouring” has so so many ingredients that it resembles a toxic chemical factory….What’s that all about? Our bread is full of additives and flavours and added vitamins and our kids are exposed to stress, electromagnetic radiation, plastics and chemicals from the moment they are born. I shake my head when there is yet another TV special quoting Doctors and Doctorates as saying “we just can’t work out where all the allergies and conditions are coming from”. Stepping off my soapbox now! Thanks Nicole – parents are the biggest consumer group, the decision makers, the thought leaders and the ones that ask the right questions. The more informed they are the better they will advocate for our children, so what you are doing is SO important with this survey and summary. :o)

  19. Alice Bullivant says

    Thanks for bringing this issue to light. I suggest that anyone who is concerned about artificial colours and other food additives goes to and subscribe to that newsletter. There is a wealth of comprehensive information about food additives and their effects, and how to avoid them. We have been doing this for over a year with excellent results. I would also like to say that the image of the Smarties is misleading, as they do not contain artificial colours, it is the M&M’s that you want to avoid for artificial colours.

    • says

      Hi Alice,

      I link to fed up in this post and have encouraged readers to use the resources there. I do also list in the post that smarties have natural colouring and m&m’s have artificial colours in them.


  20. says

    Hi Nicole

    Excellent article!! It is great to see your article raising awareness and reflecting parental concerns.

    If you or any of your blog’s readers are keen there is a team of Additive Alert community talks presenters that deliver talks throughout Australia that deliver talks based on the Australian Bestseller Additive Alert. We can deliver these low cost talks to schools, childcare centres and workplaces in many locations around the country (for example I’m based in South East Queensland). Just check out and fill in a contact form.

    Kindest regards
    Louise D’Allura
    Additive Alert Community Talks Presenter (Queensland)

  21. says

    Sorry I missed the survey, these are murkey waters that i have been wading through for almost 18 years now. We have always noticed a definite change in behaviour when artificial colours come into play, but also some physiological symptoms. Quite apart from the increased fidgeting, restlessness, hyperactivity, lessened impulse control and difficulty concentrating, we have also experienced symptoms including night terrors and worsened asthma symptoms. My eldest daughter would feel out of sorts for WEEKS after ingesting artificially coloured foods – to the point that a month later she would be starting to feel depressed at her inability to focus and or maintain concentration, as well as how much more mixed up her thinking process was than usual. This fuzzy headed state commonly lasted around 2 months before all the residual effects were out of her system.

    160b is also used as colouring in some cola drinks.

    I have to say that the voluntary exclusion of artificial colours from all products in Aldi supermarkets is a godsend. It saves a lot of hassle with having to check and double check food labels all the time. And in the other supermarkets you need to check. Brands often change product ingredients and if you don’t regularly check you may end up with something in your child’s system that shouldn’t be there. We’ve been caught out with that a few times in the past.

  22. says

    Great post thank you. I will be downloading that App asap because food colourings are a major trigger for challenging behaviours in our house.