Gaps and a lack of clarity in European regulations for colourings mean the food industry is "often working at the boundaries of legal controls," said an industry expert.
Kath Veal, business manager for regulatory services at Leatherhead Food International, said the definition for colourings as foodstuffs that provide colour as a secondary effect leads to unanswered questions for manufacturers.
Two main points she raised were whether certain flowers and algae are in fact foodstuffs, and if a product has been processed and then selectively extracted to leave only pigment, can it still be classed a colouring.
"Manufacturers are trying to abide by the rules, but are left confused by the regulations," Veal told FoodNavigator.com.
"If regulators restrict access to these alternative colours, it will make it even more difficult for manufacturers to move away from artificial additives to the more natural alternatives that consumers want."
Also, because of Europe's precautionary principle, it is cautious about new ingredients, making it difficult for manufacturers to know the position of certain products.
In response to the question on extraction, the UK government has said: "There continue to be discussions in Brussels on what constitutes selective extraction, so this leaves a grey area at the present time."
This week, the European Parliament voted on new regulations governing colourings and flavourings. The industry is hoping these will provide better clarity for manufacturers.
According to the European Directive (94/36/EC), things that would not be considered colours are:
"Foodstuffs; whether dried or in concentrated form and flavourings incorporated during the manufacturing of compound foodstuffs, because of their aromatic, sapid or nutritive properties together with a secondary colouring effect, such as paprika, tumeric and saffron".
Therefore, products such as spirulina (from seaweed), hibiscus and safflower may not technically be considered foodstuffs, though these have been commonly consumed over time.
Veal also said that the current regulations mean companies marketing just the pigment from saffron, for example, are actually doing to illegally.
In a discussion document, the German authorities have raised concerns about the confusions in the regulations, saying: "When extracting food of plant or animal origin there is a smooth transition from a complete extraction with water to a more or less selective extraction up to an isolation of pure single components.
"Nevertheless for the task of classification it is essential to mark the position within that spectrum from where on the product is no longer 'a food consumed as such' but (if used for technological or nutritional purposes) an additive, which needs approval."
The German authorities are currently debating the issue of Spirulina, which is used as a blue food colouring by companies such as Nestle. It has been historically used as a food supplement, but questions remain over whether it can be classed as a foodstuff.
Changes to legislation
Earlier this week, the European Parliament adopted a legislative package to make all products containing any of the six artificial 'Southampton colours' labelled with a health warning for children.
Additionally, MEPs updated and simplified EU rules for authorising food additives, flavourings and enzymes by adopting a legislative package on four draft regulations, which are part of the Commission's Food Improvement Agents Package (FIAP).
Other areas voted on by the Parliament included the decision that food additives must only be used if they are safe and bring benefits to consumers, flavourings must be 95 per cent natural in origin to be labelled "natural", and separate limit values for nanotechnologies must be decided on.