Which food colourings are you using?

A colourful chocolate or pastry display is bound to attract attention, but do you know where your colour is coming from?  In the last few weeks, the issue of food colouring has come up quite a few times: During my conversations with Michael Zorin, the Sosa Ingredients chef who did a demonstration with us a few weeks ago and during my IBC Belgium factory visit subsequently.  Sosa Ingredients is making a push to move away from synthetic food colourings. (The ones we are currently using the most) Instead, Sosa is promoting the use of freeze-dried fruit and vegetable powders to colour chocolate, cocoa butter etc. Of course, using freeze-dried fruits isn’t going to work everywhere. IBC, one of the leading companies in food colouring for the chocolate and pastry world are also making a push for the so-called ‘non-azo’ colourings. Are you still with me? Don’t worry, it took me a while to understand the difference between ‘azo’ and ‘non-azo’ colourings as well. So let’s have a look at the options we have available, their advantages but also their problems.

The definition of a food colour

Food colours, considered as additives, can be any dye, pigment or other substance that can impart the colour of food, but that can’t be consumed as such. All additives that are safe for use in food have received an E-number from the European Safety Authority (EFSA). For example Carmine is E120, and Allura Red is E129.  To immediately address a myth here: E-numbers can be 100% natural, so the fear of E-numbers is based on misinformation. The use of food colours is subject to EU rules (Regulation 1333/2008/EC) to ensure a high level of human health and consumer protection. US- and Japan-specific regulations applied to food colours may differ from EU regulations. 

From natural origin colouring foods

I put the ‘foods’ in the title in italic for a reason: Colouring foods are ingredients that can give colour to food and can be consumed as such. The essential characteristics of their source are maintained, and there is no selective extraction. All colouring foods are E-number free.  Ingredients considered as colouring food:  tomato concentrate, coffee, cocoa, spinach, spirulina, safflower, etc. Colouring foods are foods or food ingredients which retain their essential characteristics. They can be used in their raw state or in a processed form by concentrating, cooking, drying or milling. Their colour pigments are not selectively extracted from the original food.  Benefits of using ‘from natural origin colouring foods’ are that you don’t need to declare any E-numbers. The downside of using these foods to obtain colours is that they do come with a taste, which may or may not suit your creation.  Also, for products where a long shelf life is needed. Chocolate bonbons will start to lose their colour after a few days of exposure to air and light. The cost tends to be higher as well.

Synthetic food colourings

Synthetic food colours are chemically synthesized from aniline and have nothing to do with natural food sources. The benefit of Synthetic food colours is their superior colouring properties and their lower sensitivity to light.  Most synthetic food colourings are “AZO colours” and contain an “N=N group” (double nitrogen binding) as part of their structure. In chemistry, this N=N group is called an AZO group. AZO groups do not occur naturally, they are always synthetic.  AZO colours have an excellent technical performance in terms of migration, thermostability & sensitivity to light. AZO colours are brighter and less expensive than NON-AZO colours.  The European regulations stipulate strict maximum allowed dosages of AZO-colourings in food products and requires the declaration of E numbers on the label.

From natural origin food colourings

“From natural origin” food colourings are made from an extraction of a vegetable, animal or mineral source.  These food colours come from natural origin and thus they don’t contain the AZO group. They are more sensitive to light & heat and are more expensive than synthetic colours.  Examples: Curcumine (E100), carmine (E120), iron oxides (E172), etc.  NON-AZO colours are less bright than AZO colours, but a higher dose can be used before going over the legal threshold when compared to AZO colours and they tend to look much more natural which is what I prefer.  Iron oxide or E172 can be used to stabilize a colour for better technical performance. 

Southampton colours

A  study published by the University of Southampton shows that the following 6 synthetic colours (5 AZO and 1 NON-AZO) increase hyperactive behaviour in children. Sunset yellow E110 Quinoline yellow E104 Carmoisine E122 Allura red E129 Tartrazine E102 Ponceau 4R E124 When using Southampton colours, European legislation requires you to mention the following on the label of your final product:  “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”.


I believe that in the current consumers climate; when it comes to products that will be consumed it’s advised to opt for NON-AZO and “From natural origin colouring foods” to colour our products and reserve the synthetic colours as much as possible for the creation of items like chocolate showpieces and other artworks that are unlikely to be consumed. *The legal information provided is merely indicative and cannot be considered legally binding to Arcane Chocolate Ltd. Source: www.ibcbelgium.com