Eating colour.

All of us eat, everyday. Some of us thrive off salads, kale chips and water whereas others of us keep our bellies full with donuts, biscuits and Fanta.


A major difference, although there are many, between these two kinds of diets is the amount of colour additives they contain.

Additives are sneaky little chemical substances which are added to foods to improve qualities of food such as their longevity, taste, or appearance. See an extensive list of additive jobs here.


Some colour additives are natural like ascorbic acid (vitamin C) which you can find in fruit. apple
Other additives are formed in chemical reactions like sorbitol (formed by chemically reducing glucose) and are not only used in your food but also products such as makeup. Mmm, tasty.

All additives must be tested and approved by the food safety organisations. In New Zealand, we have Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) keeping an eye on what goes into the foods we’re eating. This prevents people from ingesting too many additives which has the potential for adverse impacts on health.

Most packaged foods must be labelled with all ingredients including food additives.
However there are exceptions.

  • If additives were used in compound ingredients (ingredients of the final product which themselves consist of 2+ ingredients) and that compound ingredient makes up less than 5% of the final food product, the additives do not need to be identified. This is unless that additive has it’s own special purpose in the final food product.
  • Also, unpackaged foods e.g. apples or food in a package with a surface area smaller than 100cm2 do not need to list ingredients including additives.


All additives have an associated number to identify them – E numbers.
In the European Union, additive numbers have an E at the beginning of them but in Australia and New Zealand we’ve dropped that E and just go by numbers. The E100’s are mostly colour additives.

biscuitI just purchased a pack of Griffin’s Cookie Bear hundreds & thousands biscuits. Every now and then I treat myself to two biscuits and a cup of tea. Bliss. 

However I flipped the packet this morning and wanted to go on a hunt for some E-numbers (without the E).
The first 100 number I find: “natural colour (120)”. 

120 represents cochineal.

Cochineal I read, is a natural red colour obtained from egg yolks. Oh and DRIED INSECTS (?!?!)
It gives foods a nice, natural red colour…


Cochineal bug where colour is extracted from.

The other colour additives found in my delicious little nibbly biscuits:

  • 160bAnnatto = orange/peach colour naturally found in cheese/butter
  • 124Ponceau 4R = red synthetic coal tar dye
  • 110Sunset yellow = yellow synthetic coal tar dye
  • 122Carmoisine = red/purple synthetic coal tar dye
  • 133Brilliant blue = blue synthetic coal tar dye
  • 142Green S = green synthetic coal tar dye
  • 100Curcumin = orange/ yellow colour extracted from natural turmeric


Something about reading “coal tar dye” as part of the ingredients in my food didn’t sit right with me and I needed to investigate more…

Coal tar colours were first accidentally discovered in 1856 by William Henry Perkin from coal by-products, creating the colour mauve/ purple. This was the first synthetic, organic dye to be produced and thus the chemical industry of dyestuffs blossomed. Today, they are found in many foods, and a lot of makeup and pharmaceutical products.

By the 1960’s coal was no longer the main raw source of synthetic colours but the name coal tar dyes stuck.  Today, they are mostly synthesised from by-products of petroleum.

However, I’m really not sure which is better.

iceblockWhen I looked into what a ‘synthetic coal tar dye’ is, the first thing that popped up was telling me not to eat or use products containing them. Artificial food colourings are thought to have been linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children. In one study, they found six additives including 124, 110, 122 (found in my yummy biscuits) were especially problematic and should be removed from food. Researchers believe the removal of colour additives from foods could reduce the amount of children between 3 and 12 with ADHD by 30%.

lolliesSo we need to ask ourselves, do we want to be eating dried bugs, coal tar and petroleum? Do we want children to be buzzing off the walls all day, unfocused and forgetful? Should we really be eating foods that contain colour additives?

I’ll ponder it over my next cup of tea.