It’s probably no surprise that those unnaturally bright-colored soft drinks, candies, cake mixes and breakfast cereals on store shelves are artificially colored. They simply don’t look like anything found in nature. That makes it’s easier to bypass them if you don’t want to eat potentially health-harming red, orange, yellow, green and blue food dyes.
Now for the bad news. These products are the easy ones to spot. Plenty of other foods may look natural but are actually color-enhanced or altered through artificial dyes and chemical processing. You just don’t suspect them because either they don’t look unrealistic or because you’ve always seen them that color.
The following list of artificially colored foods may surprise you for many reasons, not least of which is that most are usually considered fresh and unaltered just as Mother Nature made them. Before you decide to strike them from your diet, read on. In some cases, the coloring used is natural, and for the rest, non-colored versions are typically available if you know where to look.
Here are some facts about eight foods that aren’t the color they appear to be.
Chances are that orange cheddar you love is artificially colored. (Photo: george ruiz/flickr)
Cheese comes in orange and white, right? Well, not exactly. The truth is cheese, especially cheddar, is naturally white or light yellowish. The yellow pigment comes from beta carotene, a colorful plant nutrient that’s transferred from the grass cows eat into their milk. In the 17th century, English cheesemakers realized they could skim off the cream, which contains most of the beta carotene, and sell it separately for more profit. To keep the yellow-orange color that people expected, they started adding coloring from saffron, carrot juice and currently annatto (a natural coloring made from the seeds of the achiote tree, though some is synthetically made). The tradition carried on in America, except for places like Vermont where anti-coloring cheesemakers — and white cheddar — continue to reign.
Gassing fresh tuna with carbon monoxide helps keep it bright red and eye-pleasing to fish lovers. (Photo: Nick Richards/flickr)
That bright red tuna steak you’re fixing for dinner might look fresh from the sea, but chances are it was “gassed” with carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless toxic gas that prevents flesh from discoloring to an unappealing brown. In fact, many meats undergo this treatment because they don’t arrive in supermarkets before the natural browning process begins. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says gassing meat is safe, but the European Union, Japan and Canada have banned the practice. Their main concern is that it can be used to camouflage potentially dangerous tuna and other meats that are past their sell-by dates. Ask your supermarket whether meat is color-enhanced or consider buying local meats fresh from the farm.
Sure, pickles are naturally green, just not the vibrant green you often see in jars. To keep cucumber skins from fading during their stint on supermarket shelves, manufacturers often add yellow coloring to amplify their natural color. Some food companies use turmeric (a yellow spice added to curry) and some use tartrazine, an artificial lemon-yellow dye derived from coal tar that may cause mutations in cell DNA. Tartrazine also goes by the names FD&C Yellow #5 and Yellow 5. Read labels and choose pickle brands without added synthetic color. A few, like Trader Joe’s brand pickles, are dye-free. If you can’t give up your neon green dills, sours and sweets, opt for those containing natural coloring.
They’re called oranges for a reason. It’s just that oranges aren’t orange all the time. Early in the growing season before the nights start turning cool, orange skins are green or at least not quite orange enough to have visual appeal in the produce aisle. That’s why some growers looking for year-round sales spray the skins with Citrus Red #2, an artificial dye certified by the FDA to give oranges a consumer-pleasing pop of their namesake color. Unfortunately, like many synthetic food dyes, this one is potentially harmful to human health. To avoid getting too much orange in your oranges, buy organic brands (which don’t allow dyes) or select those grown in California or Arizona (two states that prohibit Citrus Red #2).
Here’s a small dose of color reality for sushi-lovers. That ball of green hot wasabi next to your sushi rolls isn’t really green. In fact, it’s not even really wasabi. The genuine stuff is made by grating the root of the Wasabia japonica plant, which is hard to grow and cultivate — and therefore extremely rare and expensive to serve. The cheaper alternative — what most of us think of as wasabi — is actually a concoction of horseradish, mustard, synthetic green food coloring and other chemicals that often comes powdered and is mixed with water into a paste.
Sulfur dioxide is often used to keep dried apricots bright orange and visually appetizing. (Photo: miheco/flickr)
Bright orange and delicious, dried apricots seem like a healthy way to satisfy your sweet tooth. Except that their orange brightness is probably a sign they were treated with sulfur dioxide prior to drying to keep them from turning brown. This foul-smelling gas also boosts shelf life and preserves taste. If you’re sensitive to sulfites or just want to avoid potentially toxic chemicals in your food, opt for less colorful organic brands and always read the label. What you give up in vibrancy, you’ll likely gain in health and nutrition.
Fake green wasabi isn’t the only sushi-related color deception. That pickled pink ginger served to cleanse your palate isn’t naturally quite that pink. Traditionally, pickled ginger (gari) is white or slightly pink, due to the pickling process. However, most commercially produced gari today is artificially colored with FD&C Red #40 (also called Red 40 or Allura Red), which is made from synthetic coal tar. There’s some evidence it can cause ADHD-like behavior in certain children, but it has yet to be banned by the FDA.
Farm-raised salmon are given nutrient additives in their feed to make them look more like their orangey-pink wild cousins. (Photo: Boca Dorada/flickr)
Wild salmon swim the oceans foraging for crustaceans, plankton and algae that contain naturally occurring colorful carotenoid plant pigments like canthaxanthin and astaxanthin. These micronutrients give salmon flesh (as well as lobster and shrimp shells) their naturally orangey-pink color. Farmed salmon, though, are fed an artificial soy- and corn-based diet devoid of these natural pigments, which leaves them pretty devoid of color. To prevent consumers from turning up their noses at the pallid flesh, salmon farmers add synthetic canthaxanthin and astaxanthin to their fish feed to boost color appeal. The health impact of these additives is still being studied, but you may want to forgo farmed salmon in favor of wild-caught whenever you can — and not just for that reason. Experts say farmed salmon is also less nutritious because fish are fed unnatural diets and because their overcrowded conditions are a breeding ground for pollutants and disease.