The following article is an overview of colorants used in the food industry. Kashrus considerations for colorants focus not only on the manufacture of colorants themselves but on any ingredients that may be used with colorants to help make them compatible in a given food system. The first part of the article will survey natural and synthetic colors, and the second part will describe the types of additives used in colorants. The last part will discuss label regulations as they relate to natural and synthetic colors.
The body of colorants used in the food industry is not endless. Economic and regulatory considerations limit the use of many synthetic and natural coloring materials. The FDA, for example, because of safety considerations, permits only seven synthetic colors – although labs can produce considerably more. Other countries have similar, but not identical regulations. Although 26 natural colors are permitted for use in the United States, the economics of production for most natural colors do not lend themselves to commercial use. Trade books for the food industry count only a handful of natural colors commonly used. From the finite number of colors available, an almost infinite number of hues can be created.
Synthetic colors, when not dissolved in a solvent, do not pose any kosher concerns. Identified by Food, Drug and Cosmetic (FD&C) numbers on ingredients labels – for example red #40 – synthetic colors are petroleum-based and factory made. Some of these colors are only permitted for drug and/or cosmetic use, and are not permitted in foods.
Natural colors are, for the most part, the products of agriculture. Botanicals have historically been a source for colors used in foods. Beets can furnish a deep red; annatto, which is from a plant found mostly in South America called bixin, provides a yellow-orange; saffron, from the crocus bulb, a yellow; and paprika, a deep red. Turmeric is another popular source of yellow. When colors are extracted from plant material the product is called an oleoresin. Although these colorants are inherently kosher, they, like their synthetic counterparts, may be dispersed in a medium or otherwise processed in ways that merit review. In section II those possibilities will be discussed.
Although most botanical sources are inherently kosher, grapes, or more precisely grape derivatives, may pose issues of Stam Yenom. Grape-skin extract is a colorant used in the food industry to dye a food red, blue, or purple, depending on the nature of the food system it is used to color. This extract, which is also called enocianina, is often used to color red wine vinegar. Red wine vinegar, left uncolored, is usually pink, and grape-skin extract imparts the dark red associated with wine.
The plant kingdom is not the only source for natural colors. Cochineal extract is a red colorant derived by extracting pigment from the dead bodies of cochineal insects. Carmine color is a derivative of cochineal extract. The OU considers cochineal extract and carmine to be non-kosher.
Astaxanthin, which in the U.S. is permitted only for fish feed [see The Daf HaKashrus – May, 2003 ] is a by-product of lobster and shrimp processing. It can also be made synthetically or produced from algae.
Fermentation can also be used to create natural colors. Fermentation refers to chemical changes of a given substance induced by a living organism or an enzyme. Often, the changed substance is sugar or starch based. Beta-carotene, a yellow-brown color, is made by one large manufacturer through fermentation. Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), a greenish, yellow pigment can be made by fermentation as well. In the case of both beta-carotene and riboflavin, the fermentation medium used is often mainly glucose. Glucose can be kitniyos or chametz. According to one of our European experts, glucose in Europe is very likely to be chametz-based. Therefore, these two pigments may have chametz-concerns and therefore their production must be reviewed before accepting them for Pesach production.
Another possible Pesach consideration arises with caramel color. Caramel is made by heating sugars. The source of the sugar could be dextrose, which could be either kitniyos or chametz-based. Lactose, or milk sugar, is another possible source for caramel production, although its use in caramel production may be only theoretical at this time.
There are many factors food manufacturers should think about when using a colorant. Most of them – pH, shelf-life of the colorant, brightness – are, for the most part, irrelevant to kashrus. However, one problem, the problem of solubility, does touch upon a kashrus issue. Overcoming solubility may involve using sensitive ingredients.
Solubility refers to the capacity of a solute – in this case a color additive – to dissolve into a solvent – a food. Certain colors are water-soluble, which means they dissolve in water. Caramel, for example, is water-soluble. It can be used to color soda, which is water-based, brown. Colas typically contain caramel. But caramel is not oil-soluble. An attempt to use caramel to color an oil-based system, such as an imitation cocoa butter, would, without the help of other ingredients, run into problems.
Food colorants, in their pristine form, are either water-soluble or oil-soluble. They are not both. A medium, called a diluent, is one means available to help make a colorant miscible – dissolvable – into a food that it may not otherwise be able to dissolve in.
The OU, for example, certifies many different beta-carotene products. Each product is dispersed in a medium or otherwise processed to make each one operable in a specific application. One such product is dispersed in vegetable oil, making it soluble in oils and fats. Another is dispersed in vegetable oil and emulsified with glycerol. Others are in powder form, embedded in soy protein and glucose powder. Without certification these colorants would not be acceptable because they contain Kashrus sensitive ingredients. One RFR has reported seeing chlorophyll, the green colorant of plants, prepared with lactose (milk sugar), which would make it at best kosher dairy.
A lake is a water soluble colorant prepared on a base of aluminum or calcium salt. These too can be dispersed in Kosher sensitive diluents.
Colors are often spray-dried. Spray-drying a colorant – or any other ingredient — could jeopardize its kashrus. Spray-driers are expensive pieces of equipment (a large one costs about $5 million). Those who own them often seek clients for whom to do custom drying and blending. Those food manufacturers who need their products spray-dried often look to a custom blender because the investment in purchasing a spray-drier is so great. Since spray-driers often operate 24 hours, seven days a week, it’s not so simple to invoke the principle of stam keilim aino b’nei yomo (freely translated: a piece of equipment that has not been used within 24 hours) . In addition, spray-dried colors often contain maltodextrin, which in the U.S. is presumed to be kitneous but in Europe and elsewhere could be chametz. Therefore, spray-dried ingredients should be assessed with caution. A group one (that is, innocuous) ingredient may not be so innocuous if it has been spray-dried.
Because colorants can be processed with an emulsifier, dispersed in a diluent, spray-dried, or possibly adulterated, colorants that have been identified as a group one ingredient only meet that status if they are pure, with no additives. A mashgiach must confirm that colorants found during a review are indeed free of additives.
“Artificial colors” was listed on an ingredients label for fruit cocktail and the question arose at the OU’s IAR (Ingredients Approval Registry): can we rule out the possibility of carmine in the dyeing of the cherries? The answer is no. Unlike the definition of “natural” for flavors, the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of “natural colors” is narrow, and includes only those colors that are natural to the food being colored itself. For example, if beet juice were used to color a strawberry product, the beet juice would have to be listed as an artificial color or bear some designation other than “natural”. Only if strawberry juice were used in the strawberry product would “natural colors” be permitted. Therefore, even if a natural color such as carmine is used, if the color is not native to the food being colored, the label must read “artificial” colors. Synthetic colors are always “artificial” based on FDA regulations. Other countries have different rules.
While colorants are often, indeed, innocuous from a Kashrus perspective, an RFR must never be “color blind” during his inspections.
by Rabbi Gavriel Price
Ingredients Approval Registry