- Sometimes it is used to make food look more attractive, like bright colours on confectionery.
- Sometimes it is used to make food look more like people imagine it ought to look. For example, butter is coloured differently for different markets - people in some countries expect butter to be nearly white, while in other countries people expect butter to be nearly yellow. Farmed salmon is coloured pink (usually by feeding colour to the fish) to make it resemble wild salmon.
How does this affect people's choices?
- They might select an artificially coloured product over a naturally coloured or uncoloured product, because the artificially coloured product deceptively looks more "natural"
- They might even prefer factory-processed food to naturally prepared home-cooked food, because the former appears more attractive. For example, many children would prefer a shop-bought birthday cake to a home-cooked cake, not just because it contains even more sugar, but also because it looks better.
What other effects do food dyes have?
- There is some evidence (the FDA believes there is no "scientific" evidence, but the UK Food Standards Agency disagrees) that some food dyes cause hyperactivity in some children.
- Manufacturers of processed foods prefer artificial food colour whenever this is permitted by local regulations, which suggests that it is either cheaper or more well-behaved in the manufacturing process. As an example, Nutrigrain Cereal Bars (Kellogg) contain artificial food colour in the USA but contain natural food colour in the UK.
- The food industry also funds organizations such as the Institute of Food Technologists, which dismisses the validity or relevance of the studies linking artificial food colour and hyperactivity. See for example Food Allergies and Other Food Sensitivities (pdf - search for "Feingold" or "hyperkinesis").
What is the effect of labelling?
- In Europe, all food additives have E-numbers. Many consumers don't distinguish between different additives and are averse to any E-numbers whatsoever.
- The food industry therefore resists any extension to food labelling regulations, because manufacturers fear this will prompt consumer rejection.
So let's come back to the question of purpose. Are these additives a secret weapon by the food industry against the consumer, as some consumer groups appear to imagine? And does the power of this weapon disappear if the secrecy is exposed, as some manufacturers appear to imagine?
Source: Do food dyes affect kids' behavior?