The Color of St. Patrick’s Day


st-patrickSt. Patrick’s Day is a day when we celebrate the Irish in all (or at least 35 million) of us. We honor our Irish ancestors, relatives and friends by dressing in green, visiting an Irish pub, or participating in a festive parade.

Food manufacturers also observe St. Patrick’s Day through the creative use of food coloring, which is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Pigments used to color food and derived from vegetables, minerals or animals are exempt from certification. A natural source of green food coloring would be grape skin extract.

On the other hand, man-made or synthetic food coloring must be certified. The nine certified color additives approved for food use in the United States are FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Blue No. 2, FD&C Green No. 3, Orange B, Citrus Red No. 2, FD&C Red No. 3, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Yellow No. 5 and FD&C Yellow No. 6.

For each color, the regulations provide a detailed chemical description, as well as specifications or restrictions on the use of the product. For example, for FD&C Green No. 3, the regulation states:

The color additive FD&C Green No. 3 may be safely used for coloring foods (including dietary supplements) generally in amounts consistent with current good manufacturing practice except that it may not be used to color foods for which standards of identity have been promulgated under section 401 of the act unless added color is authorized by such standards.

I thought that the green cupcakes and cookies at work would contain a splash of FD&C Green No. 3, which according to Wikipedia, is banned in the European Union and some other countries for use as a food dye. 21 CFR §81.30 lists the color additives banned in the United States.

Instead, the label for the decorated brownie bites read Blue 1 or 2, Red 3 or 40, Yellow 5 or 6, Yellow 5 or 6 Lake. For the frosted sugar cookies, the artificial colors were Yellow 5 Lake, Blue 1 Lake, Blue 1, Blue 2, Blue 2 Lake, Red 3, Red 40, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 Lake and Titanium Dioxide. Wikipedia has an explanation of lake pigments, if you are interested.

The sobering section is 21 CFR 81.10, which details the provisional color additives that have been terminated. If you are looking for motivation to step away from the tempting green cupcake, read about the adverse effects of certain color additives on laboratory animals. Cheers!