With a global market valued at an estimated $1.45 billion (according to the August 2010 “The Global Market for Food Colours” report by Leatherhead Food Research), food colors comprise a sizable share of the world’s food industry, with usage of 40,000-50,000 tons annually. Even in the midst of a global economic downturn and a dip in annual growth levels in food color sales, the segment is expected to reach $1.6 billion by 2015, a 10% increase from current levels. In terms of usage, foods account for the lion’s share of color applications, some 67% per Leatherhead, followed by the 28% found in soft drinks and 5% in alcoholic beverages.

Accounting for a large share of the segment’s growth has been the continued interest in natural colors. Between 2005-2009, the global market for natural colors jumped nearly 35%. Nevertheless, food colorings in general have found themselves something of a target of late.

Caramel coloring has been of particular interest to one lobbying group. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) claims caramel coloring is contaminated with two cancer-causing chemicals and should be banned and has filed a petition to begin that process. A CSPI release contends, “In contrast to the caramel one might make at home by melting sugar in a saucepan, the artificial brown coloring in colas and some other products is made by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites under high pressure and temperatures. Chemical reactions result in the formation of 2-methylimidazole and 4 methylimidazole, which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, or thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory mice or rats.

"The National Toxicology Program, the division of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that conducted the animal studies, said that there is 'clear evidence' that both 2-MI and 4-MI are animal carcinogens. Chemicals that cause cancer in animals are considered to pose cancer threats to humans. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found significant levels of 4-MI in five brands of cola."

CSPI even disputes the usage of the phrase “caramel coloring,” arguing it is misleading when used to describe colorings made with ammonia or sulfite and supporting instead the use of “ammonia process caramel” or “ammonia sulfite process caramel” on labels.

Federal regulations distinguish among four types of caramel coloring, two of which are produced with ammonia and two without it. CSPI wants the FDA to prohibit the two made with ammonia. The type used in colas and other dark soft drinks is known as Caramel IV, or ammonia sulfite process caramel. Caramel III, which is produced with ammonia but not sulfites, is sometimes used in beer, soy sauce, and other foods.

Food colors have even been brought into a debate about hyperactivity in children. However, following a March 2011 meeting of the FDA Food Advisory Committee, where all of the evidence was reviewed, the 13 experts from various scientific fields concluded that the research looking at hyperactivity and color additives failed to show a cause-and-effect relationship, though they did recommended more studies into the matter.

The group also considered additional labeling and warning statements on products containing artificial food colors, and the resulting decision was far from unanimous. The majority (57%) opposed the idea, which garnered support from the remaining 43%. Participants noted a hesitancy to support a warning statement for fear it might lead consumers to believe the product was unsafe. 

The Grocery Manufacturers Association has opposed efforts to place such labels on food products and, shortly after the FDA Food Advisory Committee review, reiterated that position: “The safety of artificial colors has been affirmed through extensive review by the U.S. FDA (via the food additive review process) and the European Food Safety Authority, and neither agency sees the need to change current policy. All of the major safety bodies globally have reviewed the available science and have determined there is no demonstrable link between artificial food colors and hyperactivity among children.”

Nevertheless, fears surrounding the food colors and hyperactivity have persisted throughout the past several decades, and CSPI’s continued efforts indicate it is not a debate which will end anytime soon. pf