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Food Coloring – Natural or Synthetic?

The food industry has seen a greater demand for naturally sourced additives compared to synthetic ones, and this is particularly true for food coloring and dyes. Business consulting firm Grand View Research predicts that the natural food coloring market will reach USD 2.5 billion by 2025. As the market grows, being able to detect the use of petroleum-derived synthetic food coloring becomes an increasingly important requirement for businesses, in order to ensure the authenticity of food colors labeled as natural.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies two groups of color additives used in food – those that require purity and composition testing followed by certification by the FDA and those that are exempt. Examples of both are shown in the table below. Certifiable color additives are primarily petroleum-derived and man-made, whereas color additives that are exempt from certification are often sourced from plants, animals or minerals. Regardless of the category, the FDA objects to the use of the label “natural color” for coloring added to food no matter its source. The FDA’s reasoning is that any coloring added to a food is not naturally present in that food and therefore cannot be termed “natural”.

Food Color Additives Subject to Certification by the US FDA (21 CFR 74, Subpart A) Food Color Additives Exempt from Certification by the US FDA (21 CFR 73, Subpart A)
FD&C Blue No. 1 Annatto Extract
Citrus Red No. 2 Grape Color Extract
FD&C Yellow No. 5 Carrot Oil
FD&C Yellow No. 6 Turmeric

In the European Union permitted food additives, including food colorings, are listed in Commission Regulation (EU) No. 1129/2011. Labelling regulations require the E number for the additive to be included on the label. Although consumers tend to associate E numbers with artificial additives, both natural and synthetic food coloring have an E number. Despite this misconception, being able to verify natural or petroleum-derived sources is still relevant for businesses. It can be used for internal quality assurance and to inform consumers that their product uses plant-derived rather than synthetic petroleum-sourced additives.

Many popular food colorings are commercially sourced from petrochemicals, e.g. Sunset Yellow also known as FD&C Yellow No. 6 and E110. This coloring has been the subject of health concerns, and the EU now requires a warning to be included on the label for any food containing Sunset Yellow. Being able to detect the presence of such synthetic compounds can be a key adulteration detection method for products claiming to contain only natural food coloring.

Natural Product Screening for Food Coloring

While there are regulatory restrictions on the use of the “natural” label for food coloring, moving away from the use of petroleum-derived synthetic colors is still in line with the overall consumer trend for naturally sourced products. Being able to confirm that no petroleum-derived food colorings have been used in natural labeled products is therefore important for quality assurance and for accountability to consumers.

Natural product testing using the Carbon-14 method is able to distinguish between plant-derived and petroleum-derived material. Reporting according to analytical standards ASTM D6866 or ISO 16620-2, the percentage of biobased carbon can be measured accurately and is a clear indication of the presence of any petrochemical-sourced materials.

Beta Analytic – Natural Product Testing Laboratory

ISO 17025-accredited Beta Analytic provides high-quality natural product screening according to standards ASTM D6866 and ISO 16620-2 using the Carbon-14 method. For inquiries, contact Beta Analytic or call a local forwarding office.


Basu J. 2015. Demand for ‘natural’ drives Europe’s food colouring growth. (Accessed August 2017).

Eur-Lex. 2008. Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2008 on food additives. (Accessed August 2017).

Eur-Lex. 2011. Commission Regulation (EU) No 1129/2011 of 11 November 2011 amending Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council by establishing a Union list of food additives. (Accessed August 2017). Date unknown. Food labelling and packaging. (Accessed 2017).

Grand View Research. 2017. Natural Food Colors Market Size To Reach $2.50 Billion By 2025. (Accessed August 2017).

Kuntz LA. 1994. Natural Food Colors. (Accessed August 2017).

PubChem. Date unknown. Sunset yellow. (Accessed August 2017).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2015. CPG Sec. 587.100 Label Declaration of Certification-Exempt Color Additives. (Accessed August 2017).

U.S. Government Publishing Office. 2017. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations Title 21: Food and Drugs Part 73 – Listing of color additives exempt from certification. (Accessed August 2017).

U.S. Government Publishing Office. 2017. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations Title 21: Food and Drugs Part 74 – Listing of color additives subject to certification. (Accessed August 2017).

This entry was posted on Monday, August 28th, 2017 and is filed under Natural Product Testing .