India: How safe are Food Colours

Nature has provided a wide range of colours in flowers, fruits and vegetables. This has made human beings develop an instinct to get attracted to foods and drinks which bear colours. Colour can make food look more appealing and appetizing to customers. Food colours are available as liquids, powders, gels, pastes. Colour additives are used to offset colour loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions. They are also intended to correct natural variations in colour and enhance natural colours in foods. But how safe are food colours and how effective is the regulation in India?

Colours – enhancing the visual appeal

Colour of the food can influence the perceived flavour. Sometimes the aim is to stimulate a colour that is perceived by the customer as natural or sometimes it is for effect. Off colour foods are generally considered inferior in quality and so colours are added. Colours can also protect vitamins and flavours that may be affected by sunlight during storage. Using colours we can enhance the natural colour of a dish and introduce decorative colours to other foods.

Natural and Synthetic Colours

Specialty food ingredients typically preserve, texture, emulsify, colour, help processing and in some cases add an extra health dimension to produced food. These ingredients are essential in providing today’s consumer with a wide range of processed foods. Such specialty food colours help maintain or improve a product’s sensory properties like colour, taste and texture. Plain food products are presented with a fun colour aspect with natural or synthetic colours.

Natural food colour is any dye, pigment or any other substance obtained from vegetable, animal, mineral that is capable of colouring foods or drugs. Colours come from variety of sources like seeds, fruits, vegetables, algae and insect. The desired colour tinge can be obtained by bearing in mind crucial factors such as pH, storage conditions and the basic ingredients. Grass, Beet Root, Turmeric are some of the natural sources from which colours are extracted .However, natural colours may not be suitable for high-heat applications.

Synthetic Food colours are also called artificial colours. These are manufactured by chemical reaction and are commonly used in food and pharmaceutical industries. Colours that are prepared from previously certified batches of primary colours are called as Blended Food Colours. Blends can be made available to meet specific requirements of a customer in terms of shade and strength. Some of the common food colours are Tartrazine , Sunset Yellow, Amaranth, Allura Red, Quinoline Yellow, Brilliant Blue, Indigo carmine and chocolate brown.

Packaging of food colours is equally important to preserve freshness and the desired quality. There are even pre packed colours available that can be directly used in the final product formulation.

While synthetic colours are produced by a chemical reaction, some organisations extract natural colours from plant material using a modern process like super critical fluid extraction. Such colours have a high shelf life and also the composition turns out to be more accurate. For instance, Curcumin 95 is a common natural colour that is produced from turmeric.



Synthetic or Natural

Due to consumer concerns around synthetic dyes, there is a tilt towards promotion of natural colours. Natural colours, generally, do not need certification by regulatory bodies throughout the world. Certified, synthetic colours are popular because they are less expensive but they are also effective in giving an intense and uniform colour. They can also blend easily to give a variety of hues.

Some natural colours do end up giving an unintended flavour to foods. They have also been reported to give certain allergic reactions.

To ensure reproducibility the colored components are provided in highly purified form; for increased stability and convenience, they can be formulated in suitable carrier materials like solids and liquids. Some standard food colourings use both synthetic and natural colours. Natural dyes from plant products are popular but they come at a price. High quality colorants for the food industry comprise colours, lakes and pigments. In some cases, specialty fluorescent colours are also used by the food industry.


Colours that are insoluble in water are made by a chemical process called Lakes. An Aluminium lake, for instance, is produced by adsorption of water soluble dye onto a hydrated aluminium substrate rendering the colour insoluble in water. The end product is coloured either by dispersion of the lake into product or by coating onto the surface of the product. Lakes are more chemically stable than water soluble colours and can also produce brighter and vivid colours. These are suited for products containing oils and fats or in products that lack sufficient moisture to dissolve colours. The more finely ground the colour particles in a lake, the more effective the colour. This means that a high colour value is obtained by using a lake with minimum particle size. This can also lead to substantial cost savings. However, standardisation of lakes can pose a challenge as minor batch to batch variations are common in pigments.


Before any new ingredient is used in food, it must undergo a risk analysis and shown to be safe at its proposed levels of use. In addition to this and for some categories of specialty food ingredients (e.g. food additives), it must also be demonstrated that there is a real technological need – if this need cannot be established, then the substance will not be authorised for use in the European Union.

Food colourings are tested for safety by various bodies around the world; different bodies can have different views.

Amit Bharadwaj, CEO, Ajanta Colours says, “We are not into making Natural colours because they are costly and even the Western countries are groping to address problems of stability with such colours. Most users are callow about the application of natural colours”. He adds that the innovation efforts are limited by the fact that manufacturers have to comply with the permitted list of colours stipulated by regulation. “As far as India is concerned, we are strong as a country that can manufacture colours. We have to meet the BIS in India, but we also need to follow the regulatory requirements in countries to which we are exporting the food colours. Whether it is natural or synthetic, the key thing is to meet the desired specifications of the product as stipulated by regulation. Even if there is a tilt towards natural products, if the desired specifications are not met, then this serves no purpose”, he concludes.

Srinivas Tilak, director, Mayur Colours says,” In Western countries there a huge number of food colours that are available as compared to India. In India the regulatory restrictions are severe in that  there are only few permitted colours like Tartazine, Brilliant Blue, Sunset Yellow. Within this framework, manufacturers dilute the colours using a base like Sodium Chloride. During the earlier days, pulverized sugar was used as the base”.

Organisations like the Mumbai-based Neelikon believe that it is important to develop a product anticipating potential regulatory changes and keeping in mind the need to excel in quality and purity standards. In food products, more than the purity (dye content), it is the impurities that are important says Satyen Turakia, Director- Marketing, Neelikon.

Colours & Controversy

Food colours have also been the subject of controversy in the West; for instance, Cochineal and carmine (also called carminic acid) are derived from an American insect. These colorants are used to impart a deep red shade to fruit juices, strawberry milkshakes and candies.

Some synthetic colours have been reported to cause attention deficit hyperactive disorder in children. There have been number of studies on this subject. While the results have not been conclusive, they have certainly not been reassuring too.

“We are living in a world that is dictated by global norms and regulation – more so when you have to export food items. This is the reason we are earnest about meeting European food standards, KOSHER and OSHA certifications”, says Vijay Nair, Marketing Manager of the Ahmedabad-based Nova International. He adds that Nova is in the forefront in meeting FCC (Food Chemicals Codex) norms.

Satyen Turakhia says, “The dye content is the value of colour in a product. It is measured in terms of the % of active component. We can have 92% active colour and balance 8% can comprise of Sodium Chloride, Moisture, impurities”. He further adds – “The impurities fall into four categories – Dye intermediates, Insolubles, Metallics and Subsidiary dyes”.

Dye intermediates refer to un reacted dye that remains in the end product. Insolubles refer to water insoluble contaminants. Metallic refers to Lead, Arsenic, Mercury, Iron, Nickel, Cadmium. Subsidiary dyes are generated due to secondary reactions between parent components of raw materials. So long as the non-active components are within permissible limits, they are okay. This shows that the chemical reaction has been able to control the production of non active components.

Satyen adds, “If we have 99% active colour and 1% is the lead contaminant, then this can be a serious hazard. But if we have 90% active colour component and balance are non active components like sodium chloride, metal, moisture etc within the limits, then this is a safer proposition. We can dilute such a product with sodium chloride and make it as a product with 20% dye content”.

Challenges for the industry

The key challenges according to Satyen are the increasing levels of complacency in China and India as compared to Western Europe, Japan and USA when it comes to regulatory compliance. “Unscrupulous suppliers end up spoiling the brand image of India by supplying inferior quality products. As far as India is concerned, there are no barriers as far as food colours are concerned as there is no one to check the quality control, manufacturing facilities or competency of people involved in the manufacture of dyes. Purity of food colours have to be checked at the ppm (parts per million) level. But as is true with other industries, the enforcement of regulation is lax in India”.

What is alarming is the alacrity with which food colours are used for non food applications and vice versa. Metanil yellow that is not a food colour is used in Mumbai and Gujarat widely for coloring food items and delicacies like Ghatia. The ubiquitous pan (betel leaf) is coloured with bright red/ green non-food colours. In Jaipur, food colours are used for non food application even though it is illegal. Moong dal (pulse) is glazed with Tartarazine, tea is given an artificial colour.

If there any casualties related to such indiscriminate use of non food colours in food items, we do not know as there is no visibility in the main stream media about such incidents. China too had grappled with milk adulteration, adulterated colours in pet food and tooth pastes in the not-too-distant past.

Srinivas adds, “This craze for natural colours is actually a Western influence. In reality, the natural colours do not disperse as well as the synthetic ones. They are also exorbitantly priced. The only natural colour that I know is Annato, the yellow colour that goes into Amul butter. Annato seeds are grown widely in Ratnagiri. They are similar to fenugreek seeds but have good coloring potential. Extraction of natural colours is done using oil or solvent.”

Adds Srinivas, “Until two years back, there was a requirement for food colours to be sold with the ISI label. With that restriction removed, it has now become a free for all.”

 “We made a few recommendations to the BIS but it has been 5 years, we are yet to receive a response, “says Satyen. “ Due to the lengthy process involved in getting new synthetic colours approved, we have kind of stayed away from new innovations”, he sums up.

The enforcement of regulation has to be stricter and the unorganised sector needs to be kept in check. Look at the irony of the situation. India has severe regulatory restrictions on food colours but also as many unscrupulous traders and trade practices. Some colours that are used in Holi festival also get substituted as food colours. Now if this is not alarming, nothing else is. At the end of the day, no one has the right to play with the lives of others.