A new color palette: Packaged foods now getting hues directly from nature

Whether you’re dyeing Easter eggs or simply enjoying the emerging daffodils and hyacinths, your world is bursting with color this time of year. Yet, you may notice that some of your family’s favorite packaged foods are becoming more muted.

Many well-known food companies are phasing out synthetic dyes from their products and replacing them with natural colors. Why? A growing body of research suggests synthetic food dyes trigger hyperactivity in susceptible children. There is growing pressure from consumers to ditch the dyes.

Mars Incorporated announced it would remove artificial colors from all the processed foods it makes for humans to be replaced with pigments found in natural substances. Other companies have also made the pledge — such as Campbell’s, Frito Lay, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, Mondelez International, Nestlé USA, and Panera. Some food chains, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, have long refused to sell foods with artificial coloring.

The familiar macaroni and cheese found in the yellow-and-blue box? Tinted now by paprika, turmeric, and annatto (a color taken from achiote tree seeds). Sunkist orange-flavored jelly candies? Carrot juice now provides their bright shade. And Yoplait’s Blackberry Harvest yogurt gets its purple hue from beet juice.

A study released last year found that 43 percent of all food products marketed toward children contain artificial colors. Surprising foods with added pigments include marshmallows, French dressing, cherry pie filling, cookies, canned pasta, and hot chocolate mix.

In a 2014 study, some cereals, candies, and cakes were found to contain much more artificial coloring than we would expect. Food companies have to disclose the presence of artificial coloring on labels, but they don’t disclose specific amounts.

Yet, while food scientists are having pretty good luck replacing orange and red with natural colors, they’re having a devil of a time with the color blue. If you think about it, there isn’t much blue that occurs in nature. And blue is generally associated with “fun” foods aimed at children, such as M&Ms, sugary drinks, cereal, ice pops, and candy.

Scientists are also finding the “natural” colors aren’t predictable and can turn strange looking or tasting. Artificial colors are easier to work with and look and taste the same regardless of where they’re placed.

An example of a natural food coloring is McCormick’s Color from Nature Food Colors. More muted than the original food colors, they’re an option for parents who wish to eliminate artificial dyes from their children’s diets for recipes such as frosting. The colors are made from ingredients such as plants, vegetables, and seeds.

All color additives used in food — synthetic colors and those derived from natural sources — must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Synthetic colors that are on critics’ radar include Red 40 (causes behavior issues in certain children), Blue 1 (worrisome since it passes through the protective blood-brain barrier), and Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 (may contain a cancer-causing contaminant).

You might be asking, “Why add artificial colors to begin with?” There are several reasons why: Humans seek color in what we eat. Bright, artificial colors simulate the presence of fruits or other natural ingredients. Interestingly, adding a red color can make a food taste 10 percent sweeter.

What you can do:

• Watch out for labels stating “artificial color added” or “color added.” Or that list “FD&C red #3” or any color followed by a number.

• Prepare more foods at home from scratch.

• Limit the amount of foods marketed towards kids.

Finally, children who get on a so-called “sugar high” may actually be experiencing the effects of these artificial colors. There is no peer-reviewed research that sugar causes hyperactivity.

Christine Palumbo is a Naperville, Ill.-registered dietitian nutritionist. After doing the research for this article, she plans to shun most artificially colored foods. Find her at Christine Palumbo Nutrition on Facebook, @PalumboRD on Twitter or ChristinePalumbo.com.