Part 2 - The Toxic Rainbow

A Look into the History of Food Dyes
Food color was a means of survival for early humans.  They learned to avoid blue, purple, or black food as it was either toxic or spoiled.  
Then around 1500 B.C. archeologists discovered that Ancient Egyptians colored their food with saffron.  Until recently, food color was harvested from nature -- -- paprika, turmeric, beet extract, petals of various flowers, and squid ink!
Poisoned Bread, Copper Pickles and Lead Candy
Then around 1250 A.D. food coloring took a dirty deceptive dive. White flour and bread were considered delicacies.  Only wealthy folks could afford these luxuries.  So, tricky bakers sold their own cheap versions to peasants. They added lime, chalk, or even crushed bones to achieve the desired white color.  
In the early 1800’s food manufacturer Thomas Blackwell admitted that his company, Crosse & Blackwell, added copper salts to ‘green’ their preserved fruits and pickles.  Many people died from copper poisoning.  

One of the most troubling uses of food coloring targeted children.  Around 1820, manufacturers loaded candies and jellies with toxic ingredients to attract children to the bright colors.  They added red lead, white lead, arsenic, and vermilion which contained mercury.  Hundreds of children became severely ill.  In fact during the 1800’s it was almost impossible to find any food, drink, or medicine that wasn’t tainted with toxic colored metal salts.


The Wiley Act of 1906

Finally, public outcry against these dangerous food additives caught the attention of the U. S. government.  Under the Wiley Act of 1906, the government prohibited the addition of these injurious metal salts as food colorants.

Coal-Tar Colors

A few years before the Wiley Act became law, an English chemist Sir William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic organic dye.  Eventually 80 coal-tar colors were being used in the manufacture of food -- but they were still virtually unregulated.

In 1938 a new United States government agency was formed to regulate and enforce color additives in food.  This new agency was called the FDA.  By this time only 15 synthetic food colors were approved by the FDA and 6 of those colors are still used today.

What do the Labels Mean?

All coal-tar colors approved by the FDA became known as “certifiable color additives”.  These colors were divided into 3 categories.

FD&C Colors were acceptable for foods, drugs, and cosmetics

D&C Colors were for drug and cosmetic use only

Ext. D&C Colors were for external use only

Then the FDA gave each coal-tar color a number to help them become more distinguishable.  So when you see “FD&C Yellow No. 6” on an ingredient label, you’ll know the origin behind the name.