A Beginner's Guide: What Exactly Is Food Coloring

March 28, 2023

Food coloring is a common ingredient in many foods we eat daily, but not everyone knows exactly what it is or how it is made. We will delve into food coloring, looking at its different types, benefits, and uses in the food industry. As a food additives supplier, we will share insights into food coloring applications based on our sales experience. Let's enter the colorful world of food coloring!

1. What are food colorings?

Food coloring, also known as food dyes or color additives, is a widely used ingredient in the food and beverage industry. Its purpose is to enhance the visual appeal of food and drinks by imparting specific hues. But what exactly are food colorings, and why are they so important in the food industry? So, let's dive in and discover more about this colorful food additive! In the following time, we'll explore the fascinating world of food coloring, including its components, various forms, and crucial role in the foods we know and love.

1.1 What is food coloring made of?

Food coloring can be made from various sources, such as natural plant extracts, fruits, vegetables, spices, or synthetic chemicals derived from petroleum. Manufacturers also use caramel pigments and anthocyanins as sources of food coloring. Later we will provide more information on typical food coloring sources to enhance your understanding.

1.2 Forms of food colorings

1. Food color liquid: This is the most common and easy-to-use form of food coloring. It can be added directly to food or mixed with other ingredients.

2. Food color gels: Gel food coloring is thicker than liquid. It is more concentrated, so it provides brighter and more vibrant colors.

3. Food color powder: Powdered food coloring is highly concentrated and is mainly used for coloring dry mixes.

4. Food color paste: Paste food coloring is similar to gel food coloring, thicker than liquid but less concentrated than gel.

1.3 How does food coloring work?

Food coloring works by selectively absorbing or reflecting light at specific wavelengths.

Food coloring is a group of atoms that absorb specific wavelengths of light and reflect other wavelengths to produce the color we see. Adding food coloring to a food product disperses throughout the food and interacts with the light that passes through it. The light absorbed by the chromophore affects the color of the food, while the light that is not absorbed is reflected in our eyes, leading to the perception of color.

1.4 The role of food coloring

1.Improve the appearance

The color of food can significantly influence consumer behavior. Food coloring can create attractive, bright, and eye-catching hues, such as red dye for strawberry-flavored products or green dye for mint-flavored ones. In baking, colorants can also be used to create unique and exciting color combinations to decorate cakes or cupcakes and make visually appealing desserts.

2. Compensate for color loss

Exposure to light, heat, or air can cause many foods to lose their natural color during processing or storage, which is problematic for products sold based on their natural hues, like some juices or sauces. Adding colorants to these products can restore or enhance their natural color, making them more visually appealing to consumers. This is especially important for products sold in transparent or translucent packaging, where color loss is easily noticeable.

3. Provide color consistency

Food coloring can help manufacturers maintain color consistency in their products, ensuring they have a uniform appearance over time. It is particularly important for products sold under brand names, as consumers expect consistent purchases.

4. Indicate flavor

Food coloring can help create a visual connection between color and flavor, making it easier for consumers to identify the taste of a food product. Manufacturers often use specific colors to indicate flavors, such as bright red for cherry or strawberry and bright yellow for lemon or banana.

2.  Types of food colorings

Food manufacturers frequently use food colorings to enhance the visual appeal of their products. As previously noted, these colorings can be obtained from natural or synthetic sources and are available in various hues. We will examine the various food colorings and their advantages and compare their distinctions.

2.1 Natural food coloring

Natural food colorings come from fruits, vegetables, and spices, ranging from vivid hues to earth tones. Food manufacturers often use them to promote natural and healthy ingredients.

1.Examples of natural colorants

  • Beet juice

Beet juice, a bright red root vegetable, contains beet glycosides responsible for its deep red color, also found in raspberries and blackberries. It is extracted by crushing or pressing sugar beets and is commonly used in baked goods, juices, and processed foods.

  • Carrot juice

Another example is carrot juice, extracted by crushing or pressing carrots and used in sauces, dressings, and juices. Carotenoids, a group of plant pigments including beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein, give it orange.

  • Turmeric

Turmeric is a staple spice in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, known for its warm, slightly bitter flavor and vibrant yellow hue. This versatile ingredient can be used in curries, stews, and rice dishes, adding color and taste to your meals.

  • Spirulina

Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that can be found in both salt and fresh water. It's an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and minerals and is known for its vibrant green color, which makes it a popular natural food coloring option. You can find spirulina used in various foods, such as smoothies, energy bars, and desserts.

  • Annatto

Annatto is a natural food coloring from the seeds of the achiote tree, found in Central and South America. Its deep orange-red hue and slightly sweet, peppery taste make it a staple in Latin American and Caribbean cuisine. You can find annatto used in dishes like rice, stews, and sauces and in cheese production. It's perfect for those looking for a natural alternative to synthetic food coloring.

  • Caramel

Caramel is another natural food coloring created by heating sugar until it becomes a delicious golden-brown liquid with a sweet, nutty flavor. You can add rich color and flavor to baked goods, candies, sauces, and even savory dishes like meat glazes. With caramel, the possibilities are endless!

  • Red cabbage

Red cabbage, also known as red kale, is a popular natural food coloring used in various dishes. It has vibrant red-purple color and can add a beautiful hue to different types of food, from salads and coleslaw to pickled vegetables and sauerkraut.

The principle behind using red cabbage as a food coloring is the presence of anthocyanins, which are water-soluble plant pigments responsible for the red-purple color of the leaves. Anthocyanins change color depending on the acidity or alkalinity of the surrounding environment. The anthocyanins turn red when the environment is acidic, such as in acidic beverages or fermented foods like kimchi. When the environment is alkaline, such as in baking soda or certain types of salt, the anthocyanins turn blue or purple.

2. Benefits of using natural food coloring

  • Health Benefits

Natural food colorings are often rich in antioxidants and other beneficial compounds that help support overall health. For example, turmeric contains curcumin, which helps reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer; spirulina contains many vitamins and minerals. Beet extract has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and annatto lowers cholesterol and improves liver health.

  • Sustainability

Natural food colorings come from renewable resources and biodegrade, requiring less energy and resources. By using natural food colorings, the food industry can reduce its environmental impact and promote sustainable development.

  • Label Claims

In terms of colorants, natural food colorings may be indicated on food packaging or labeled as "free of artificial colors" or "made from natural ingredients. These statements may appeal to consumers looking for more natural and healthier food options.

2.2 Synthetic food coloring

1.Examples of synthetic colorants

  • Red 40

A synthetic colorant, Red 40 or Temptation Red AC, is bright red. Food manufacturers use it to enhance the appearance of candy, baked goods, cereals, and beverages, and it's also used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

  • Yellow 5

Yellow 5, or tartar yellow, is a synthetic colorant derived from coal tar with a bright yellow color. It's commonly used in soft drinks, candy, baked goods, processed snacks, and other products like pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

  • Blue 1

Blue 1, or Brilliant Blue FCF, is a synthetic organic compound made from petroleum. It's blue food coloring in baked goods, candy, and beverages.

  • Green 3

Fast Green FCF or Green 3 is a bright green powder soluble in water and alcohol. It's commonly used in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.

  • Citrus Red 2

Citrus Red 2 is a synthetic colorant used to color the skin of oranges, making them more attractive to consumers. It's added to oranges intended for processing into juice or canned portions.

2. Benefits of using synthetic food coloring

  • Cost-effective

Synthetic food coloring offers a cost-effective solution for food manufacturers due to its large-scale production and high consistency. This makes them a more affordable option for producing brightly colored foods, which is crucial for mass-produced or budget products. Additionally, synthetic food coloring is easier to source and ship than natural food coloring, further reducing costs for manufacturers.

  • Stability

Another advantage of using synthetic food coloring is its stability. Synthetic food colorings are designed to resist fading or discoloration over time, ensuring that the food remains visually appealing to consumers. Manufacturers find it particularly important to use synthetic food coloring for foods with a long shelf life, such as packaged or baked goods, that may be stored for extended periods before consumption. Additionally, synthetic food colorings are less likely to be affected by environmental factors such as heat or light, ensuring that they maintain their stability and consistency.

  • Availability

Compared to natural food colorings, synthetic food colorings are usually more widely available. Natural food colorings may be produced in limited quantities and only accessible through specific suppliers. In contrast, synthetic food colorings can be produced in large quantities and are extensively used in the food industry. Moreover, the ample availability of synthetic food coloring aids in reducing costs, making it a desirable option for manufacturers who seek a cost-effective method to add color to their products.

  • Consistency

Synthetic food colorings offer the advantage of being more color-consistent than natural food colorings. A highly controlled manufacturing process typically produces synthetic food colorings, ensuring color consistency from batch to batch. This attribute is crucial for food manufacturers who require a consistent color for every batch of their products. In addition, manufacturers can create diverse colors for their products by blending synthetic food colorings with other colors. This color consistency and variety can assist food products in standing out on store shelves and attracting consumers.

  • Variety

Synthetic food colorings can produce bright and vibrant colors that natural food colorings may not be able to achieve, especially for visually appealing products such as candy or baked goods.

2.3 Natural food coloring vs. Synthetic food coloring

CriteriaNatural Food ColoringSynthetic Food Coloring
SourcePlant, animal, or mineral-basedChemical-based
Production ProcessGenerally involves minimal processing and extraction methodsInvolves chemical synthesis and processing
Colors AvailableLimited range of colors availableWide range of colors available
ConsistencyMay have variations in color from batch to batchOffers greater consistency in color from batch to batch
FlavorCan add subtle flavor notesGenerally flavorless
CostTypically more expensive than synthetic food coloringGenerally less expensive than natural food coloring
Labeling RequirementsGenerally labeled by the specific natural source of the color (e.g. "beet juice concentrate")Generally labeled as "artificial colors" or "FD&C colors"

3.  Examples of use food coloring

The food industry widely uses food colorings, from confectionery and baked goods to beverages and frozen foods. Many foods rely on colorants to achieve a desired appearance. Let's explore some specific examples of foods that commonly use food colorings to improve their appearance.


Food coloring is widely used in producing various candies to add color and make them more visually appealing. Hard candy, gummies, jellies, lollipops, and coated candy are examples of candies that use food coloring to achieve bright and vibrant colors. Chocolate production also uses food coloring to create unique colors and flavor combinations. For instance, white chocolate can be colored with food coloring to create pastel shades, while dark chocolate can be colored to create more intense colors. The colorful candy shell on coated candies like M&M's is also achieved through food coloring.

2. Soda

Soda is a carbonated soft drink that usually contains sweeteners, flavoring agents, and food coloring. Food coloring is often used in sodas to give them an attractive appearance and to differentiate between flavors or brands. For example, brown food coloring is used in cola, green in lemon-lime, orange in orange soda, and purple in grapes.

3. Processed meats

Food coloring can give meat products a more attractive and appetizing appearance. The appearance of meats such as sausages, hot dogs, and deli meats is enhanced by adding colorants to them.

4. Breakfast cereals

Breakfast cereals consist of processed grains commonly eaten in the morning as part of a balanced breakfast. They often use food coloring to enhance their appearance and differentiate flavors or brands, such as bright colors for fruity cereals, brown for chocolate, and tan or brown for cinnamon cereals.

5. Baked goods

Food coloring enhances the visual appeal of baked goods, such as red velvet cakes, sugar cookies, rainbow cakes, Easter cookies, and cupcakes. While it is not necessary for taste or texture, it is crucial to know the types and amounts of food coloring used in our foods.

6. Yogurt

Yogurt is a dairy product to which natural or synthetic coloring agents are often added to improve the appearance and appeal to consumers. Some common food colors used in yogurt include natural food colorings such as beet juice, turmeric, and spirulina extract, as well as synthetic food colors such as Red 40 and Blue 1.

7. Snack foods

Food coloring is commonly used to give unique colors to snack foods such as chips, popcorn, and crackers. In addition to improving appearance, colorants help distinguish different flavors and varieties of snack foods, such as yellow for cheese-flavored snacks or red for tomato-flavored snacks.

4.  How to use food colorings?

We will discuss how food colorings are used in the food industry and provide some tips on relevant regulations and how to use food colorings effectively.

4.1 Food coloring regulations

1.Permissible Colorants

Permissible Colorants are listed and approved by regulatory agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Food manufacturers must adhere to these lists to ensure they only use permitted colorants.

2. Maximum Limits

Regulatory agencies establish maximum Limits to prevent the overuse or misuse of colorants, which can harm consumers. These limits are based on safety assessments and vary depending on the country, region, and type of food product.

3. Labeling Requirements

Labeling Requirements mandate that food manufacturers label their products with the name and specific name or number of the color additive used. It is important for consumers with allergies or sensitivities to certain colorants.

4. Natural vs. Artificial

Natural vs. Artificial labeling requirements exist in some countries to differentiate between natural and artificial colorants. In the US, the use of the phrases "artificial color" or "color added" is required on the label if an artificial colorant is used.

5. Safety Assessments

Safety Assessments are mandatory before a color additive can be approved for use. These assessments evaluate the colorant's safety for human consumption by assessing its potential toxicity, carcinogenicity, and mutagenicity.

4.2 Methods of using food coloring

Food coloring agents typically have various uses, depending on the food preparation. Here are some examples of how different foods usually use them.


Water-soluble food colors are often used in beverages because they are easily soluble in water. For example, you can add red to juice drinks and blue to sports drinks. Additionally, you can use powdered food colorings in powdered beverage mixtures. The amount of food coloring used can vary depending on the desired hue and intensity of the color. Food producers use combinations of different food colorings to achieve the desired shade.

2. Baked goods

Producers use different food colorings in various ways to achieve specific effects. They often add liquid food coloring to dough or batter to achieve a uniform color. On the other hand, they use powdered food coloring to create flecks or marbling. Additionally, they utilize natural food colorings to create earth tones, while synthetic food colorings produce brighter, more vibrant colors.

3. In dairy products

To use food colorings in dairy products, manufacturers usually add them during production. For example, food coloringts are usually added to the mixture before pasteurization for milk and cream. Food processors typically add food colorings for cheese and butter during the processing stage, such as before curd formation or blending butter.

4. In snack foods

The type and amount of food coloring used in a snack will vary depending on the desired effect and product. Cheese-flavored snacks may use bright orange food coloring to suggest cheddar cheese, while sour cream and onion-flavored snacks may use green food coloring to suggest the presence of herbs such as fine parsnips or parsley.

In addition, food colorings are added as dry powders or liquids during the manufacturing process and are usually mixed with other ingredients before being added to snack foods.

5. In processed meats

Food colorings can be added to processed meats to enhance their visual appeal and distinguish between different types of products. For example, red colorants such as carmine or cochineal extract can be used in meat products such as sausages and hams to give them a more attractive color. However, synthetic food colorings like Red 40 are more commonly used due to their cost-effectiveness and stability.

5.  Innovation in food coloring

5.1 Technical Progress

Recently, food coloring has seen a surge in technological advancements. Biotechnology now enables the creation of new, more stable, and intense natural food colorings through fermentation. Nanotechnology is being explored as a means to enhance color delivery, ensuring even dispersion throughout the product. Additionally, better monitoring and control of color quality and purity is possible with the development of analytical techniques. These advancements have ultimately boosted the effectiveness and safety of food coloring, resulting in higher quality and more enticing products for consumers.

5.2 New sources

In recent years, there has been increasing interest in finding new sources of food colorings. One promising area of research has been the exploration of microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts, and fungi as potential sources of natural food coloring. Another focus area has been developing natural food colorings from agricultural and food industry byproducts, such as grape skins, fruit peels, and spent coffee grounds. Advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering have also allowed for the development of food colorings through fermentation and bioconversion processes. With continued research and development, these new sources of food colorings could offer sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives to traditional sources.

After reading this beginner's guide, you will better understand what food coloring is and how it is used in the food industry. From natural sources like plants and spices to synthetic chemicals, food coloring comes in various forms to create the perfect shade and color for different foods. Whether it's brightening up a cake or adding some color to your favorite beverage, food coloring is an essential ingredient that can enhance the appearance and appeal of your favorite foods. So, the next time you see a brightly colored treat, you'll better understand what's behind that vibrant hue!

Our best content

Check out our recommended post list below.

How Food Additives Are Classified By Science

How to choose food additive suppliers

Baking Secrets Unveiled: World of Food Leavening Agents

Acidity Regulators: What You Should Know

Citric Acid: The Secret Ingredient In Your Favorite Foods

Sodium Citrate: The Secret Sauce That Elevates Your Food and Health

I hope these resources can bring you help.

Get the latest prices

Since launching in April of 2014, Reiheychem now manages additive supplier work for more than 120+ clients in 30+ countries. We'd love for you to join!
NO.999, qianshan Road, Hefei City,Anhui Province,China
(+86) 15249926606
Inquiry form