Special edition: Natural colours

Global divide over natural colour regulation

By Sarah Hills

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags E number Food additive Food and drug administration

In the third of a four part series on natural colours, FoodNavigator looks at the regulatory situation in the US and Europe and the challenges this poses for food manufacturers and ingredients companies.

On both sides of the Atlantic coloring in food and beverages is subject to regulation – in the US by the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) and in Europe by the European Commission.

Both ensure that colour additives are safely and appropriately used but a colour that is deemed “natural”​ or “artificial”​ in the US does not always have the same status in Europe, raising issues for the food industry.

Colourant company DD Williamson points out that the EU and USA recognize the term artificial colour differently. In the EU artificial color is an acceptable reference to what is recognized in the US as "colour additives subject to certification", "certified colours", "Food, Drugs & Cosmetics (FD&C) colours"​, or "synthetic colours".

And the colour additives that the industry informally refers to as 'natural' ​colours are technically recognised by the FDA as "colour additives exempt from certification" ​or less formally as "exempt colour additives"​ or "naturally derived colour additives"​.

Consumer confusion

Jennifer Guild, global food science and regulatory manager at DD Williamson, said that according to the FDA, almost all added colours result in an artificially coloured food. So it would object to the declaration of any added colour as ‘natural’​ in the ingredient statement unless the colour additive is inherent to the product.

An example of this is elderberry ice cream containing added colour from anthocyanins isolated from elderberries. The added colour would be considered natural since the elderberry colour would be expected in an elderberry ice cream. However, if the ice cream were colored with anthocyanins isolated from purple sweet potato, the added colour would be considered artificial, as the consumer would not expect colour from purple sweet potato in a product called elderberry ice cream.

This means that it is not always clear to a consumer reading an ingredient statement when a product contains a colour additive that has been naturally derived.

Guild said: “Although the USA FDA suggests the declarations, “Colour Added”, “Coloured with…”, or “…(Colour)" as alternatives to the declaration of "Artificial Colour" in an ingredient statement, it is not acceptable to identify a naturally derived color additive as "natural colour".

“This potential for confusion and misinterpretation of a label by a consumer is limiting to the food manufacturer that uses naturally derived colour additives and does not want to disclose the source of colouring."

She said: “It is essential that we learn to appreciate the language of colour additives and how this language can change depending on the region in which you are working.”

Another issue is the different sources for isolating naturally derived colouring that are approved in the various global regions.

An example is sodium copper chlorophyllin which is currently only approved in the USA for use in citrus-based dry beverage mixes, while in the EU it is allowed to colour many more food and beverage applications. And lutein is allowed for use as a food and beverage colour additive in the EU but not in the USA.

Stricter regulation

Regulation in Europe is tightening following research into artificial colours and the US may follow suit. The Southampton study, which was published last September in The Lancet​, found that a concoction of artificial colours led to hyperactivity in children. Now the European Parliament has adopted a legislative package that is expected to see products containing any of six artificial colours come with a health warning.

Foods containing tartrazine, quinoline yellow, sunset yellow carmoisine, ponceau 4R and allura red will have to be labelled “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reviewed the Southampton study and was of the opinion that there is no evidence to change acceptable daily intakes (ADIs).

However it is currently in the process of reviewing scientific evidence on the safety of all colourings. This would include those in the Southampton study and also all natural colours that have been approved.

EFSA is the commission’s independent risk assessor but the legislative body is under no obligation to act in accordance with its opinions.

Calls for a ban

Meanwhile the US-based Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the FDA to ban artificial colourings that are linked to hyperactivity and behavior problems in children. It has also asked the FDA to require a warning label on foods with artificial dyes, while a ban is considered.

The CSPI cites FDA statistics that the amount of food dye certified for use was 12 milligrams per capita per day in 1955 whereas in 2007, 59 mg per capita per day, or nearly five times as much, was certified for use. It said that artificial dyes are particularly prevalent in the sugary cereals, candies, sodas, and snack foods pitched to children.

But again, exactly what is meant by the term “artificial colour”​ depends on which side of the Atlantic you are standing.

Tomorrow FoodNavigator will look at emerging science on natural colours.

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