On Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol would hang a red piece of wool in the Bais Hamikdash. Once the wool turned white they knew our sins were forgiven…
Human beings have been tinkering with food for thousands of years. Salt, sugar and various spices are routinely added to improve taste. Some ingredients are added to preserve foods, such as salt which helps preserve fish and meat. Salt is also used to extract blood. The possuk says in Iyov 6:6: “Can meat be eaten raw without salt?” People also learned the art of pickling and canning in order to preserve foods. Later on, simple chemical changes were introduced in order to produce fermented wine out from grapes, dairy products from milk, fluffy baked goods out from flour and water, and so on.
As our knowledge, experience and needs grew, we learned how to upgrade the quality of our prepared food. During the last century, the world made dramatic strides in food preparation, allowing the production of better quality food in greater quantities that remain safe and healthy for a longer period of time.
One of the catalysts for this change was mass migration to cities and the decline of the family farm. Prior to the development of large cities, most people lived and worked on a family farm, or in a town that was in close proximity to multiple farms. Consequently, food did not need to be preserved for long times and the quality was readily noticed by observing the fresh picked produce. Today, most of the food in our grocery stores travel significant distances before reaching our local shop, and are picked or prepared long before consumption. Therefore, the consumer does not observe the growing process at all; they rely heavily on how the food looks and feels when we examine it to determine quality and freshness. Since there is much more competition in today’s retail food market, the suppliers work hard to present their offerings in the best possible light.
Accordingly, the need for kosher supervision has become more acute. While years ago fresh fruits, vegetable and spices were used to enhance the color of prepared foods, today a vast variety of both natural and artificial colorants are used in the products on our supermarket shelves. Even though, sometimes, only minute amounts of some of these ingredients are used, they still require supervision. There is a famous Teshuvas HaRashba (Cheilek Gimmel, Siman 214) that says that if a non-kosher ingredient was added intentionally, it does not become nullified, even if we cannot discern its taste, because it has made a noticeable change in the food.
Food coloring is usually added in order to make food look healthy and appetizing. We all know that there are natural variations in the colors of fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, during travel, exposure to sun and changing temperatures, the colors change slightly. Yet, most consumers will only buy the best looking foods and discard anything that looks off color. The market responds in kind by finding all kinds of ways to make sure that the product looks perfect. Though the customer’s expectations may not be realistic, food coloring is added in order to live up to their standards.
We have also come to associate certain foods with corresponding colors, even though these colors may not be accurate. Though cola sodas are not really brown and hard cheeses or margarine are not really yellow, we alter their colors in order to live up to the customers perceived expectations.
It is a well-known dictum that “we taste our food with our eyes” as much as with our taste buds! Food processors are keenly aware of this, and they alter the colors accordingly.
There are two types of food colors:
1. Artificial colors (or Government Certified colors):
These colors require health certification, as they come from petrochemicals (chemicals that come from petroleum) or coal tar. The particular color is derived from chemically altered ingredients, such as erythrosine or tartrazine. These ingredients are generally considered kosher as long as they are processed on kosher machinery.
Artificial colors are not always artificial, but are still called “artificial” due to FDA regulations which require that even natural colors are listed as artificial if they are used outside of their natural occurrence (i.e. beet juice in fruit snacks).
2. Natural colors (or Exempt from Government Certification):
These do not require FDA certification, but may require additional kashrus supervision. Natural colors come from either the plant or animal kingdom, and may include grape skin or insects.
Furthermore, some foods require oil soluble coloring. In order to change water soluble coloring to oil soluble, it may require a medium (such as glycerol) which requires kosher supervision.
All of the ingredients that are found in food have a designated number in the European Union. The numbers E100-E175 are devoted to colors, with E102-E143 denoting artificial colors. In the United States, the natural ingredients are generally not listed, as they are considered acceptable to all by the government. The artificial ingredients have specific FD&C (approved for food, drug and cosmetics) numbers.
Are you yellow about food coloring?
Are you too scared to think about how colorings are made? Does it seem like a “mad science” experiment gone wrong?
Hashem created naturally grown fruit, vegetables, and flowers which sport a magnificent array of colors. They also include many types of smell, taste, and medicines, each miraculously blended together, so that it seems like one pure item. Yet, the perceived simplicity masks an amazing array of chemicals.
You see, scientists like to break everything apart, in order to figure out how it came together. They try to figure out which chemical produces its color, which its taste, and so on. Usually the colors are not pure, rather they are a mixture of various colors and hues, which makes the fruit so much more exciting. Scientists do not want the exciting, they would rather break down the colors and discern each separate hue.
Scientists devised ways in which to separate all of the different parts of the fruit, vegetables and plant life. The easiest way to separate is to grind up the colorful object into a powder, and to cook the item. This usually transfers the colors into the water, and the fruit is then filtered out.
At times, the color adheres to the fruit so strongly that it is impossible to remove. In that case, scientists have a wide array of options. They can squeeze the fruit and extract oil. Almost every object has oils inside it. They can also add some solvents in order to loosen these bonds and allow the colors to escape. Some of these solvents would be alcohol, acetic acid (vinegar), ammonia, hexane, etc. Many of these are poisonous if swallowed in full strength and in significant quantity, so after they are used to extract the color, the solvent is extracted and the product tested to determine the solvent has been removed.
Even so-called “natural colors” are not presented in their natural form; they are altered by using many chemicals or heavily concentrated. Thankfully, even natural colors go through strict testing before they can be deemed fit for human consumption. Some of the natural colors come from beta carotene and other carotenoids. These include sweet potatoes, pumpkins and carrots, which produce a deep red, yellow or orange color. Chlorophyll is the green found in many plants and it is used in lime or mint candy, ice cream and foods. Deep purple and blue come from grapes, blueberries and cranberries. The deep yellow color comes from turmeric, a spice that grows in India. Of course these colors can be mixed and remixed in an infinite number of combinations.
There is one little problem that I failed to mention – color can be produced from animals, too. Did you ever notice the beautiful deep red color in some strawberry flavored yogurts or cranberry juices? The color is often derived from the cochineal insect (a type of beetle). If you crush 70,000 of these bugs, you end up with one pound of carmine or red #4. Of course, this is not kosher according to mainstream hechsherim.
For many years, scientists have found that many of the same color producing chemicals found in plants and animals can also be isolated from ground minerals. They, too, are very complex and can be broken down and even combined in ways that produce new chemicals. Coal used to be one of the main sources of many of these color producing compounds, until it was proven to be unhealthy and was replaced with petroleum derivatives. Mineral based colorants are combined using a wide array of temperatures and distilling processes.
Although there are many options for “natural” colorants, most food producers prefer artificial colors because they are cheaper and more stable than natural colors, which tend to vary with age and storage conditions.
As you can see, the food production process only gets more complex, and the need for competent kashrus supervision more acute, as food chemistry and technology rapidly advances. While our grandmothers colored their food with berries and borscht, today’s products contain myriad natural and artificial colorants from hundreds of sources. While there will always be debate about the benefits and drawbacks of natural versus artificial colorants, the kosher consumer can rest assured that whatever they prefer, packaged goods bearing the ~ symbol are prepared with ingredients and processes that adhere to the highest standard of kosher supervision.
Commonly Used Food Colorants
(Note: Even when these colors come from kosher raw materials, we cannot accept these as kosher without the guidance of an experienced kashrus supervisor.)
Curcumin (E100): A bright yellow chemical produced from plants, mainly from turmeric.
Annatto (E160b): A red-orange dye made from the seed of the achiote tree which usually grows in the tropical regions in the Americas. Though it is red, it is often used in yellow orange colorings. This seed is widely used in Mexico and in the Caribbean.
Carotenoids: Organic pigments produced by plants and algae. There are over 600 types of carotenoids that produce a range of colors from violet to green, though they are generally deep yellow, orange and red. Alpha, beta and gamma carotenes are all carotenoids. They may be found in carrots, corn, egg yolks and bananas, as well as in various hickory trees.
Chlorophyll: Found in green leafy vegetable. It produces Natural Green 3 and E141.
Anthocyanins (flavonoids): Odorless but flavorful. They are red, purple, black or blue and are found in blueberries, raspberries, black rice and black soybeans.
Betanin (E162): A red (glycoside) food dye (bright bluish red to violet blue) that comes from beets. This dye weakens when subjected to light, heat and oxygen. It is therefore used in products with short shelf lives, in frozen foods, or in dry products.
Carmine: Made by boiling dried insects in water to extract the carminic acid. This solution is then treated with alum to produce the crimson red color. Around seventy thousand bugs are needed to produce one pound of carmine. (All mainstream kosher agencies prohibit the use of carmine (Natural Red #4) in kosher products.)
Elderberry Juice (E163): Derived from the elderberry fruit. It is a flavonoid called cyanidin, with colors ranging from red to purple to blue.
Lycopene (E160d): A bright red carotene dye that comes from red fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, watermelon and papaya.
Paprika (E 160c): A ground spice, made from air-dried varieties of red pepper. It comes in red, orange and yellow.
Erythrosine (E127) [FD&C Red No. 3]: A derivative of fleuron, which is made from coal tar. Its color is cherry pink, and it is commonly used in candies, cake decorating gels and to color pistachio shells. This ingredient is being curtailed because of health concerns.
Allura Red (E129) [FD&C Red no. 40]: Comes from naphthalene or coal tar.
Fast Green (E143) [FD&C Green no. 3]: Is used to color green peas, vegetables and jellies. It is hardly used because of its health concerns.
Brilliant Blue (E133) [FD&C Blue no. 1]: An organic compound that appears as a reddish blue powder. It comes from benzene and sulfuric acid. It can be combined with tartrazine to produce various shades of green.
Indigotine or Indigo Carmine (E132) [FD&C Blue no. 2]: A natural dye extracted from plant leaves. Its blue is similar to the color of blue jeans. While Indigo Carmine is blue when the pH level is 11.4, it turns yellow when the pH level is 13.
Quinoline Yellow (E104): A greenish yellow additive. It comes from carbon and dye (synthetic). It is permitted in America only for medicine and cosmetics (D&C Yellow 10), while it’s permitted in Europe even for food.
Sunset Yellow (E110 and FD&C Yellow 6): A petroleum derived orange dye.
Tartrazine (E102) [FD&C Yellow no. 6]: A very common synthetic lemon yellow azo dye made from petroleum.
Carnosine (E122): is a synthetic red azo food dye, and is made from disodium salt. It is not used in foods in the US, because of concerns of ADHD, though it is permitted for certain foods in the E.U.
Ponceau 4R (E124): Also known as Cochineal Red A, it is a strawberry red dye in the azo family. It is permitted for food coloring in the E.U., but not in the US. It is synthetic and not made from the cochineal bug.
Patent Blue V (E131): A synthetic bluish dye made from sodium, calcium and magnesium salt. It is permitted in the E. U. and prohibited in the U.S.
Green S (E142): A green synthetic coal tar permitted in the E.U. and prohibited in the U.S.
These are the basic color dyes. All of these colors may be combined to create many different colors and hues, to create the colorful world that we live in today.