Food Colourant – Natural or Synthetic?

Historical use of food colourants: The addition of colourants to food dates back to Egyptian times when wine & natural plant extracts were added to candies to make them more attractive to children. Synthetic food colourants have been added to food products more than 100 years ago when food production became industrialised.


Why add colourants to food & drink?

Have we ever wondered why colourants are added to almost all processed foods and drinks? One of the main reasons is that “colour” reflects the quality and freshness of food. In addition, consumers tend to associate a particular colour with a certain flavour. For example we all expect marmalade to be orange in colour and a kiwi fruit-flavoured drink to be green in colour. A strawberry ice cream will have to be none other than pink. However, processing and storage cause the natural colours of the foods to fade. Processed foods usually end up with an unattractive shade of beige or grey. In reality, colourless foods do not sell!

Consumers also like their foods & drinks with the “right” and “same” colour consistently. Very few indeed would buy a brand of strawberry jam if every bottle is of a different colour. In nature, however, no two strawberries are of the exact same colour, even from the same plant. In order to achieve the desired colour, colourants are added to provide consistent & vibrant colours that are resistant to fading.


Health concerns over synthetic colourants.

The most commonly used colourants in food production have been synthetic or artificial colourants. There is, however, emerging health concerns over the toxicity of their breakdown products. For example, in year 2007, the European Union suspended the use of the dye RED 2G due to its break down product aniline, which is carcinogenic. In fact, many synthetic colourants have been banned over the years for causing various health problems.

Of particular concern is the association of synthetic colourants with abnormal childhood behaviour found in a landmark study commonly referred to as the “Southampton Study”, which was performed by researchers at the University of Southampton in United Kingdom. In essence, it evaluated 6 commonest synthetic food colourants (Sunset Yellow [E110], Carmoisine [E122], Tartrazine [E102], Ponceau 4R [E124], Quinoline Yellow [E110], Allura Red AC [E129]) and sodium benzoate [E211] as a preservative in two separate age groups of children (age 3 and age 8/9 year old). These synthetic additives were found to increase hyperactivity amongst the children evaluated. The result from this study has far reaching impact on the processed food & drink industry.

Following the publication of results from the “Southampton Study”, the UK Food Safety Authority (FSA) called for a voluntary ban of the 6 synthetic colourants. In July 2008, the European Parliament voted for a mandatory warning label that reads “may have an effect on activity and attention of children” on food & drink products that contain the synthetic colourants. This is expected to be in force by mid 2010. This is effectively a ban of all six colourants from food products.

European food industry is currently under growing pressure from all sides to remove synthetic colourants, and to replace them with natural alternatives. It is inevitable that the tide is turning away from synthetic colourants and the same trend will soon be seen in US, Asia and other parts of the world.


Caromin® – A truly natural food colourant from palm fruit.

So, what are the alternatives? Out of the six banned Southampton colourants, at least two can be directly replaced with natural carotenoids, which can give various shades of yellow to orange.

Carotenoid is a large family of fat-soluble pigments found primarily in plants (e.g. leafy green vegetables, carrots, tomatoes). Some carotenoids such as beta-carotene and alpha-carotene act as precursors of vitamin A. Lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids that do not have vitamin A activity but possess other health promoting properties.

There are four main commercial sources of carotenoids, namely – synthetic beta-carotene, algae’s beta-carotene, fermentative beta-carotene and palm carotenoids. Synthetic beta-carotene is an artificial colourant containing only a single form of isomer (all trans beta-carotene). Likewise, algae’s and fermentative beta-carotenes predominantly contain a single isomer (more than 96% beta-carotene).

In comparison, palm carotenoids are truly wholesome fruit/food based full-spectrum, natural carotenoids. Palm oil contains the highest known concentration of naturally derived carotenoids. Caromin® natural palm carotenoids is extracted from palm fruits (Elaeis guineensis) using a patented mild extraction process, which ensures maximum preservation of carotenoids. Apart from beta-carotene, Caromin® palm carotenoids contains the highest level of alpha-carotene (about 33%) compared to carotenoids from other sources. It also contains appreciable amounts of gamma-carotene and lycopene. Caromin® is non-genetically modified (Non-GMO), Vegetarian, Kocher & Halal certified.


Applications & health benefits of Caromin® palm carotenoids.

Caromin® natural palm carotenoids has been well accepted in the food and beverage industry as a natural colourant. It imparts a colour the shade of yellow – orange. It is widely used in the fat-and-dairy-processing industry to standardise the colour of margarine, butter, ghee, cheese and edible oil. It is used as a natural colourant in confectionery and convenience foods such as candies, gums, crackers, sauces, cookies and pastries. It is also widely used to replace synthetic colourants in the beverage industry.

Besides its application as a natural food colourant, Caromin® natural palm carotenoids has also been used in dietary supplements, functional foods & drinks as well as cosmeceutical products. Alpha-carotene and beta-carotene have pro-vitamin A activity. Thus, a product formulated with Caromin® natural palm carotenoids can claim vitamin A activity on their label. In addition, carotenoids show potential inhibition of cancer cell growth including colon neoplasm and breast cancer cell. Epidemiological studies have shown that high serum levels of alpha-carotene and beta-carotene are associated with reduced risk of developing gastric cancer. This effect has been observed in Chinese, Swedish and Japanese populations.

Palm carotenoids is a potential photoprotective agent. Studies have showed its potential in protecting UV-induced erythema & oxidative damage as well as photoaging. Carotenoids accumulates in the skin and protects the skin by quenching the singlet oxygen (a potent free radical) and prevents the expression of MMP-9, an essential step in skin photoaging.



Synthetic colourants such as quinoline yellow, sunset yellow and tartrazine do not posses any nutritional value. These are also associated with hazardous effects on health including allergy and hyperactivity in children. Despite the potential health problems with synthetic colourants and the subsequent ban in various countries particularly in Europe and possible further ban in other countries, colourants remain an essential part of the processed food and drink industry. This will inevitably drive an increase in demand for natural colourants. Of the six banned Southampton synthetic colourants, at least two if not more could be replaced with Caromin® natural palm carotenoids cost effectively. In addition, Caromin® natural palm carotenoids confer unique health benefits as outlined above.

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Dr. Sharon Ling
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