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Chemical Cuisine

There is enough evidence to suggest that food additives and artificial colours cause harm to health and children are the worst-affected. In several countries, the use of food colours like ‘Sunset Yellow’ is either banned or regulated. But not so in India

We have all seen hyper-active children—children who can’t concentrate and act on sudden wishes without thinking about alternatives. Well, this could be more serious than imagined earlier and this could be a result of all the artificial colours children today ingest with fruit-juices, soft drinks, ice-creams and fruit jams.
The UK Food Standards Agency set the alarm bells ringing in September 2007 when it conducted a study of 300 random children and found they behaved impulsively and lost concentration after a drink containing additives/colours. This led to there being calls to limit the use of additives and colours in packaged foods. It is not easy, however, to take on the packaged food lobby, but it can help if we were to get to know which fruit drinks or jams have what additive and chemicals in them.
In 2005, the Sudan-dye scare broke out in UK. Some samples of red chilli powder imported from India had been detected as being adulterated with the Sudan dye—a banned colourant which is known to cause cancer.
Most red chilli powder samples that are sold loose in India are never tested and it is quite possible that they are dyed to give them an attractive red colour.
Outside schools across India, children routinely enjoy ice-lollies on which synthetic colours of various hues are lavishly poured to make the treat irresistible.
It is hard to regulate the small-time operators, who are in the millions in the country, but the mainstream players, especially the brands who advertise and sell their products across the country, are expected to take the lead in providing safe food without synthetic colours—even if the standards do not make it mandatory for synthetic colours to be banned.

Why add colours to foods anyway?

Colours are added to food for cosmetic reasons: to make processed foods look colourful and more appealing to consumers (especially to children) or to restore the natural colour that has been lost during processing and storage. Sometimes the aim is to stimulate a colour that is perceived by the consumer as natural, such as adding red colouring to glace cherries (which would otherwise look dull). Similarly red colour in ‘rose syrup’ and green colour in khas syrup’ are added for making the syrups look more colourful and appealing.

Carmosine (Azorubine)

Carmosine (Azorubine) is a synthetic red dye (colour). International Numbering System (INS) Number of Carmosine (Azorubine) is E 122. Generally companies declare it on label as colour (122).
Carmosine (Azorubine) appears to cause allergic or intolerance reactions, particularly amongst those with aspirin intolerance. Other reactions can include a rash and skin swelling. It can provoke asthama. In several animal studies, it has reduced intestinal digestive enzymes and been found to produce mutagenic effects.
Carmosine (Azorubine) is a banned food additive in Canada, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Austria and United States. However, it is allowed for use in India.

There is enough evidence to suggest that food additives and artificial colours cause harm to health and children are the worst-affected. In several countries, the use of food colours like ‘Sunset Yellow’ is either banned or regulated. But not so in India

Sunset Yellow

Sunset Yellow is a synthetic orange yellow dye (colour). The International Numbering System (INS) Number of Sunset Yellow is E 110. Generally companies declare it on label as colour (110).
Sunset Yellow is a sulfonated version of Sudan 1 colour (banned in India), a possible carcinogen (cancer producing), which is frequently present in foods as an impurity. Sunset Yellow itself may be responsible for causing an allergic reaction in people with an aspirin intolerance resulting in various symptoms including gastric upset, vomiting, nettle rash (urticaria) and swelling of the skin (angioedema). The colouring has also been linked to hyperactivity in young children.
Sunset Yellow is a banned food additive in Norway, Sweden and Finland but is allowed for use in India.


Tatrazine is a synthetic lemon yellow dye (colour). The International Numbering System (INS) Number of Tatrazine is E 102. Generally companies declare it on the label as colour (102).

Tatrazine appears to cause the most allergic and intolerance reactions particularly among asthmatics and those with an aspirin intolerance. Symptoms from tatrazine sensitivity can occur by ingestion, anxiety, migraines, clinical depression, blurred vision, itching, general weakness, hot flushes, feeling of suffocation, purple skin patches and sleep disturbance. A study at the University of Melbourne has linked tatrazine to childhood obsessive- compulsive disorder and hyperactivity.

Tatrazine is a banned food additive in Norway, Germany and Austria. Because of the problem of tatrazine intolerance, USA requires the presence of tatrazine to be declared on food and drug products and also the colour batch used to be preapproved by the FDA. However, Indian laws allow its usage.

On 10 April 2008, the British Foods Standards Agency called for a voluntary removal of the following colours by 2009:category

  • Carmosine/Azorubine (E 122)
  • Sunset yellow (E110)
  • Tartrazine (E102)
  • Ponceau 4R (E124)
  • Quinoline yellow (E 104)
  • Alura red AC (E129)
    In addition, it recommended that there should be action to phase them out in food and drink in the European Union (EU) over a specified period.

Under Indian law – Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Rules, 1955 use of Carmosine (Azorubine), Sunset Yellow and Tartrazine are allowed in certain categories of food preparations up to specified limit of the final food or beverage for consumption and where an extraneous synthetic colouring matter has been added to any article of food, it should be displayed as the following statement in capital letters, just beneath the list of ingredients on the label attached to any package of food so coloured, namely:“CONTAINS PERMITTED SYNTHETIC FOOD COLOUR(S)”

On consumer demand, a few companies have started producing processed food products without colour. The claims on labels state “No Added Colour”. Among packaged food articles following brands are available in the market without colour:

Toxic colours in fruits and vegetables

In summers, the streets are lined with water-melon sellers who are ready to oblige the buyers by cutting a small piece of the fruit and showing people the flushing red inside of the fruit. However, it has been known that the watermelons are injected with a red dye to give the fruit a bright red shade. Such colours can be toxic and watermelons are not the only fruits to be dyed so. Since vegetables tend to dry up quickly in summers, they are given a coating of colour to make them look fresh. Okra, peas, capsicums and brinjals are some of the many vegetables given a coloured bath or a shiny coat to fool consumers into believing they are fresh. Then there are other foods like pulses and spices that get a coating of paint throughout the year, irrespective of the season. Here, the colour is meant to give them an attractive shine or to cover up holes left by insects or worms.

By Prof Sri Ram Khanna, Ashok Kanchan & VOICE Team

Consumer VOICE

Consumer VOICE

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