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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Food Coloring

Summary: Both in the past and the present, foods have been used as colorants for a variety of purposes. They can serve as pigments as well as substances that can enhance the attractiveness of food items. Several natural colorants are described in the essay.


am not a devoted fan of the Food Network cable channel but will pause for a moment as I channel surf and see “what’s cooking.” The Food Network has a voyeuristic quality that seems akin to wandering through a residential neighborhood at dinner time, randomly stopping at a house, walking in, and heading to the kitchen to see what is on the stove. I do not recommend that you try this in your neighborhood.

Artists may take a virtual trip in the amazing world of colors to find that pigments and food have some interesting relationships. Some food/pigment combinations are in use today while others are long forgotten. Here are a few you might find interesting.

Annatto comes from a shrub that produces orange-red seedpods. It grows extensively in South America, Central America, and in some parts of Mexico. The seeds are the source of an orange dye that is used in foods. The yellow-orange coloring of cheeses, margarine, and butter can be derived from annatto. It is also used in Latin American cuisine as a flavoring agent. The colorants in annatto are bixin and crocetin. Annatto is noted by scientific researchers to have been used as a lake pigment in the seventeenth century.

Carmine is worthy of a much larger discussion. In this case, the same cochineal insect that produces the vibrant red colorant for paints and dyes also has food applications. It is one of those amazing colorants that have high chroma and is not toxic. (Note: a study was conducted by doctors at the University of Michigan who found that a small number of people can have moderate to severe allergic reactions to the carmine dye.)

Carmine finds its way into so many food products. However, journalists who find the use of carmine unsavory write headlines that say things like, “ground bugs in our food,” or “ground up beetles in our _____.” (You provide the food item in question.)

A quick scan of the Internet yields bountiful results. It appears as if a food poisoning conspiracy has been uncovered or that carmine is the first wave of an alien invasion. Headlines like, “My Pink Grapefruit Juice has Bugs in It,” and other astounding discoveries are found when researching the widely used cochineal insect. I am sure it would alarm people to read a food ingredient label those states, “insect-derived food coloring.” Instead, products containing carmine indicate “cochineal extract (color)” as an ingredient. That seems to put a better spin on the name. Given the long list of unpronounceable chemicals that usually precede the coloring agent found at the end of the ingredients list, cochineal seems harmless by comparison.

Cochineal is found in so many food products. It is in fruit juices that need a bit of “perking up” to look attractive. It is in meats found at our grocery store. Without it, steaks and ground beef would look brown or grey. A contemporary author suggested using the colorant derived from the skins of red grapes after they have been pressed for wine could serve as an acceptable substitute for cochineal. It is interesting to note that grape-related material has been a pigment source as well. That concept is discussed further along in this article.

Chestnut Brown appears as a reference in 1869 in the form of a lake pigment. Today it is relegated to turkey stuffing, boiled in sugar syrup, or to me, as an annoyance when the smoke from chestnut roasting vendors irritates my eyes as I pass heaps of chestnuts being roasted over charcoal fires at nearly every block in New York City during the cold weather months.

Coffee Black is listed in Osborn’s 1845 book on pigments. The use and formulation remain unknown. It was also referred to as “coffee brown.” It proves once again that you can add white to nearly anything to create a new hue.

Frankfort Black was made according to George Field, (1835) from the “lees of wine.” The lees are the yeast and other solids derived from the fermentation of grape juice. The lees were transformed to a black pigment by burning. Field believed the French source of Frankfort Black was superior to German supplies.

Parsley is cited by Merrifield in 1849 as a source for a green colorant. A recipe calls for the combination of parsley juice mixed with verdigris pigment to create a pleasing green color. While the recipe is old, the use of vegetable juices is far older. Ancient and modern artists have all tried natural colorants as a source of inspiration. Ed Ruscha created a series of well-known modern artworks several decades ago with natural dyes. Using beet juice, parsley, and nearly the entire compendium of “V8” vegetable juice ingredients as sources of pigments, he outlined block-lettered phrases on pieces of watercolor paper. Unfortunately, if you are the owner of one of these naturally colored artworks, they are rapidly fading away as these colors do not meet even the lowest level of ASTM lightfastness standards.

Peach Black is still available today. It is referenced in several books on pigments. Peach Black is derived from calcined fruit pits. Cherries or almonds are also equivalent sources. It is logical to understand that the waste product of an industry could be put to good use. Fruit processing yields pits in large enough quantity and consistency that it became attractive for a manufacturer to use them for some purpose. Authors of pigment catalog books describe the working characteristics of one fruit stone over another, so a discernible difference was noted between source materials. On further reading of the literature, it seems that nearly anything could be burned and ground into pigment if the source of the material could be amassed in enough quantity to be financially practical for the pigment manufacturer.

Saffron colorant comes from the stamens of the plant Crocus sativus L. The dye product is crocetin and brings us back full circle to annatto, the first color mentioned. Saffron was used in manuscript illuminations in the fifteenth century. It was also noted as a glaze placed over the pigment orpiment. It is mentioned in seventeenth-century texts but no widespread writing about its use is evident. Being such a fugitive material, it was probably rejected as a color worthy of use in easel paintings. Illuminated manuscripts are usually closed and are less unaffected by natural light allowing the pigment to last longer than if it were applied to an oil painting.

So, when you sit down to a breakfast of grapefruit juice, bacon, and eggs, toast with butter, and coffee. Three out of the 6 items listed have our little insect friends providing the color we have come to expect in the foods we consume. As for me, I will be watching whatever guest chef is on air who will whip up a complete 3-course dinner out of 4 potatoes, some arugula, and a wheel of brie.

The Syntax of Color

Originally published July 2005 in The Grammar of Color Vol: 1 No. 17

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