How Safe Are Food Colours? Experts Respond To Major Concerns

The frequent use of food colouring in street food, local eateries, bakeries and cloud kitchens is a rising cause of concern for consumers in the country. After gobi Manchurian was banned in the Goan town of Mapusa, owing to the use of synthetic colours and toxic additives, the sale of cotton candy has been banned in Puducherry due to the use of harmful colours. Moreover, the rising trend of themed cakes often leads home bakers towards food colours, which despite being edible, offer no nutritional value and may also lead to certain side effects.

Nikki Mendiratta, who runs the Mumbai-based bakery brand Satou, only goes for traceable ingredients and sticks to natural options as much as possible. “I prioritise transparency when it comes to ingredients because most packaged products that are out there are manufactured in factories and tend to include toxic elements,” says Mendiratta.

“There has been a lot of research surrounding the use of food colours and food dyes and their harmful effects. However, we lack solid stats which can back up the claims of their toxicity. The only claim which has been proven to be legit is the connection between food dyes and hyperactivity between children,” confirms Mendiratta.

A report released in April 2021 by the state of California, with contributors from UC Berkeley and UC Davis, confirmed that the consumption of synthetic food dyes can cause hyperactivity and other neurobehavioral issues for some children, particularly those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). New Delhi-based dietician and nutritionist Kanupriya Khanna who runs the bakery brand Karamele backs up the claim of food colours being unsafe.

“Food colours should be avoided as far as possible especially if food intolerances and allergies are present, or if anyone has asthma, especially children. Food colours and dyes are not safe on any count which is why I don’t use any colours in my own recipes and use natural alternatives instead,” Khanna shares.

Chef Partha Bose, the pastry chef at Four Seasons Hotel Bengaluru shares that certain elaborate confections benefit visually from vivid colours, though the chef himself tries to steer away from synthetic colours, despite the challenges. “I’m not a great fan of using food colours and prefer seasonal produce which gives vibrant colours in dishes. Few things where we don’t have options, for example, like in macaron shells, fondant cakes, glaze and decorative cookies we need to use colours. But I prefer and insist on sticking to pastel shades,” he says.

‘Tracing your ingredients really matter’

Traceability should be prioritised by customers for everything, feels Anamika Soni, a Chennai-based home baker. Soni, who refuses to use liquid or gel-based food colours in her creations makes sure she conveys this to her customers and takes them through her process.

“I have never used food colours because I steer away from almost every synthetic ingredient. I feel the problem is quite tricky because it needs consumers to be acutely aware and that’s not always feasible. The cotton candy thing in Puducherry was so striking to me because it’s such a staple for kids, they want to eat it whenever they see it! I can’t blame parents for indulging them. Till a few years ago, Cochineal dyes were used for red velvet cakes and they’re made from bugs, which I’m sure many vegetarian customers may not know. So traceability is a big factor,” Soni breaks down.

Chef Sangeet Panwar, Executive Pastry Chef, JW Marriott Bengaluru Prestige Golfshire Resort & Spa shares that there are more options now for bakers who want to swear off food colours altogether. 

“With pastry world developments in the last decade, we have so many alternative ways or ingredients available in the market that we are no more dependent on the use of artificial food colouring. The recipes that we follow tend to demand the use of natural fruit purees, compotes or flavoured chocolates, but they are expensive and not all hotels or restaurants can afford to include such ingredients,” Panwar says.

“But we have things like Barry Callebaut power flowers, which is a highly concentrated natural coloured cocoa butter that can be used to add colours to your chocolate and also to your glazes, creams, buttercreams etc. French manufacturer Valrhona introduced its inspiration chocolates with different flavours doesn’t call for any colours in your preparations,” adds Panwar.

‘Go Natural, Add Less’

“Towards the start of my career, I would stick to 4 or 5-ingredient cakes and I still prefer recipes which can offer indulgence with minimal ingredients. It’s natural colours or no colours for me,” Soni remarks.

“At times guests convey their queries regarding colours and we improvise, with beetroot powder, or agar agar powder, things are quite manageable,” says Chef Sunil Kumar Singh of Mumbai’s Blue Bop Cafe & Bar.

Using beetroot juice or powder for red velvet creations is a common hack that has been used by bakers for decades. Chef Varad Kotnala, Executive Sous Chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Bangalore shares that turmeric, spirulina, matcha powder, annatto seeds, and purple sweet potatoes can also be included in desserts to add colour. “We prioritise the health and dietary preferences of our guests, opting for natural alternatives such as fruit and vegetable juices, spices, and plant-based colourants whenever possible," says Kotnala.

“Asking enough questions is key for consumers,” says Mendiratta, who believes customers are more aware than they’ve ever been. “They’re aware of their allergies, they’re curious about the kind of flour we’re using, if it's jowar, or a gluten-free blend. This should extend to the use of colours as well, especially if they’re buying something for their children because indulgences need to be thoughtful too,” she shares.

What Should You Tell Your Baker?

- Opt for non-fondant cakes and avoid macarons and glazes if possible since they often need colours; for themed cakes which need fondant, choose pastels or white fondant which can be acquired naturally.

- Food from a restaurant or home kitchen can include food colours too; have a conversation with the chef if possible about alternative natural substitutes. “There are plenty of colouring ingredients that are added to the food to enhance the flavours, taste and nutritional levels like use of degi mirch for making rogan, saffron in sweets, beetroot powder, paprika powder and many more,” says Panwar.

- Avoid hard candies or sticky gum-like sweets which tend to include heavy food dyes.

- Liquid food colours which are known to be safer than food dyes, often include some percentage of food dyes. Look for words like Carmoisine, Erythrosine or Ponceau 4R, Tartrazine, Sunset Yellow FCF ndigo Carmine, Brilliant Blue FCF which are just different shades of dyes.