Safety incidents such as "dyed steamed buns", "dyed braised pork, three-yellow chicken", "black sesame in ink", and "sudan red" reported in the news have caused consumers to resist the use of pigments in food processing, and almost talk about "color". "Discoloration, that adding colorants is equivalent to counterfeiting, and ingesting colorants will seriously harm our health. In particular, synthetic pigments make consumers avoid them. However, is this really the case? Why do food add colorants? Are colorants safe? Are artificial colorants really more dangerous than natural ones? Today we are going to talk about these colorant issues of public concern.

1. What is a colorant?

Color is one of the most important sensory properties of food, which can bring great visual impact to consumers. Its use in food can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where local candy makers used natural extracts and wine to improve the color of their candies around 1500 BC. With the occurrence of the industrial revolution, the food industry has also developed rapidly, and more and more pigments have been developed , forming an important category of additives - food colorants.

Food colorants are a large class of food additives that are mainly designed to color food, give food bright color and improve food color . According to the source of colorants, they can be divided into two categories: natural colorants and synthetic colorants. Natural pigments are partly extracted from plants, such as carotenoids extracted from carrots, lycopene extracted from tomatoes, etc., and some of them are derived from animals or microorganisms, such as cochineal red, monascus red, etc. Synthetic colorants are non-natural pigments produced by artificial synthesis technology, such as carmine, lemon yellow, bright blue, etc.

The specific roles of colorants in food processing and production are:

① Improve the deterioration of the natural color of the food caused by processing, and maintain the attractive color of the food.

② Give food color, such as candy, jelly and other food adding food coloring can increase consumers' desire to buy and appetite.

③ Make the color of the product uniform and reduce the natural deviation in the color of food or ingredients.

2. Are the colorants safe?

In the early days of colorant development, many food colorants have never been tested for toxicology and other adverse effects, but are widely used in various popular foods in the market. Due to the strong toxicity of early aniline and coal-tar dyes, managers in various countries have carried out toxicity testing of food pigments. China is no exception. Food colorants have been used in the food industry for more than 20 years. At present, the production, use and research of food colorants have reached a certain level and scale [3]. Strict safety management requirements have been formulated for the use of pigments.

The toxicity of pigments depends on its chemical structure, so the safety audit of natural pigments stipulates that if the chemical structure of the extracted natural pigments has not changed, and the amount used does not exceed the content of natural food, no toxicological evaluation is required. For other natural pigments that are used in large amounts, no matter whether their structure has changed or not, corresponding toxicological tests are required before they can be used in food. For synthetic pigments, the safety requirements are more stringent. Every artificial color approved for use in China must undergo a series of strict toxicology tests and safety evaluations before it is allowed to be used. Strictly review the procedures of the product, and finally determine its toxicity, as well as the maximum amount and scope of use in various foods, and finally write it into national standards.

my country's current "National Food Safety Standard for the Use of Food Additives" (GB 2760-2014) is compiled according to my country's safety management requirements for pigments, verified by experts' toxicology experiments, and with reference to international and developed countries' standards and regulations. Guidelines for the use of additives. It clearly stipulates the principles of use of food pigments, the types of pigments that are allowed to be used, the scope of use of various types, the maximum amount of use or the amount of residues and other matters. And GB 2760-2014 is a mandatory national standard and is protected by law. The use of pigments in qualified food must meet the relevant requirements of the national standard before it is released to the market. The colorants added to food are strictly monitored and can be used. Good guarantee of food safety. In addition, our understanding of pigments is not stagnant, it belongs to a process of gradual improvement, and the guidelines for the use of pigments are also constantly updated with changes in understanding. For example, compared with GB 2760-2011 used in the past, the current GB 2760-2014 has withdrawn the use of 17 colorants, aiming to standardize the use of pigments and ensure that the colorants are safe enough to be used in food, thereby Safeguard the rights and interests of consumers.

As for the occurrence of pigment incidents such as "dyed steamed buns", it is mainly because the bad producers do not use them legally in accordance with the relevant regulations, and it is not because the colorants themselves are low in safety. To prevent the recurrence of these problems, manufacturers need to enhance food safety awareness and produce rationally, while market supervisors must strictly enforce the law or related regulations, maintain order in the food market, and cooperate with multiple personnel in the food industry.

3. Are natural colorants bad? Why use  synthetic colorants?

Among those who have misunderstandings about colorants, in addition to thinking that colorants are not safe, they are more distrustful of synthetic pigments. "There are natural pigments, why are so many chemical pigments synthesized?" A netizen once asked me. To answer this question is actually very simple, one is that natural pigments are not easy to use, and the other is that natural pigments are too expensive. Merchants naturally don’t want to use things that are not easy to use and expensive.

Why are natural dyes so bad? High-quality pigments generally require good water solubility, because the use of pigments is mainly to add water to make a solution, which will facilitate the coloring of food, but natural pigments have large molecular weights and poor water solubility, making it difficult to color food. And the nature of natural pigments is not stable enough, which can easily lead to the color of the product becoming deteriorated during the shelf life, which seriously affects our appetite. Why are natural pigments expensive? It is expensive because of its complex extraction process, and large-scale use will lead to a substantial increase in the cost of manufacturers.

Synthetic pigments are developed for the shortcomings of natural pigments, with bright color, strong coloring ability, good stability, good water solubility, easy to color, uniform quality, and durable effect. In addition, because the synthetic technology of artificial pigment is mature, the preparation is simple, and its cost is relatively low.

4. Are natural colorants safer and less toxic than synthetic colorants?

Although artificial colors are more convenient and durable in food processing, it is more important for health-conscious consumers to be safe enough. While there are some studies showing some health risks associated with high intake of synthetic pigments, more evidence is lacking, and experimental conclusions are controversial. And the relevant national standards have stricter safety requirements for artificial pigments. For example, the minimum lethal dose of natural pigment β-carotene and artificial pigment carmine for half of the experimental mice is 8000 mg per kilogram, but GB 2760-2014 allows β- The maximum amount of carotene used in food is 1.0 grams per kilogram, while carmine is only 0.5 grams per kilogram.

There are also some researchers who believe that natural pigments present a safety risk. For example, the extraction process of natural pigments is complicated, and there are often some harmful substances in the extract that cannot be separated, such as residual pesticides, veterinary drugs and other environmental pollutants. Moreover, because natural pigments are prone to structural changes during processing, they also bring safety risks.

Therefore, safety is relative. As long as it is a qualified food, it will not cause health risks if it is used reasonably in accordance with the guidelines for the use of colorants. As long as the producers use them reasonably, the safety of synthetic pigments is no less than that of natural pigments.


Colorants are not terrible, and my country has strict audit procedures and relevant specifications for the use of colorants. And my country has higher requirements for artificial synthetic pigments, so as long as they are used reasonably in accordance with relevant regulations, artificial pigments, like natural pigments, will not harm human health.

However, it should also be noted that, after all, colorants are only for sensory enjoyment functions. On the premise of achieving the expected effect, enterprises should reduce the amount of colorants used as much as possible, and standardize the identification on the label; the regulatory department should also increase supervision. Intensity, we must crack down on over-range and over-limited use; consumers should not pay too much attention to the appearance and bright colors of food when choosing food. When shopping for food, you should pay more attention to whether there is a production license on the food packaging, and be vigilant and avoid eating those roadside foods that are easily neglected, such as street milk tea, homemade snacks, candies, cakes, etc. without production dates, Three no food without a production license and without a manufacturer.

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