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.