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Food Coloring History – The Color In Your Food

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The food coloring history dates back to early Roman Civilization, when people used saffron, various flowers, carrots, mulberries, pomegranates, beets etc to put color to their foods. They even used certain minerals and ores like silver, gold or copper to garnish the food in bright, dazzling colors. Mainly the intention of using food colors was to add bold touch of colors to a dull looking food or to hide any defects of preparation.  During the middle of nineteenth century people started to use synthetic colors instead of natural colors for this purpose.

Adding food color 

To study the history of food colors, you have to go back to the days of ancient civilizations like Egyptians or Romans during 700 C.E. In the Greek epic Iliad, Homer has mentioned about saffron as a food coloring agent. The Roman people used to eat white bread by adding the whitening agent alum with the flour.  Various sources from the early 400 C.E. mentioned the artificial coloring of wine. In the medieval days, various exquisite culinary dishes were prepared using plant extracts of various shades. By the middle of fourteenth century, saffron had become much popular among Europeans, although it was basically originated from Persia.  Other natural coloring agent like turmeric, indigo, marigold, parsley, spinach, flower petals etc also started to gain their popularity by this time. At the beginning of sixteenth century, people started to believe that color in food has not only nutritional value, but also act as a medicinal substance.

Simultaneously, the history of food colors was also taking its shape in South America and Mexico at the same time. The Aztec people used to cultivate a particular type of insect, known as cochineal to produce food color. Other than cochineal, they were also used to putting food colors such as paprika, brazilwood, annatto etc, which later arrived to Europe, to make the Mediterranean food more colorful and delicate.

However, from eighteenth and nineteenth century onwards people gradually started to use fake and harmful food colors. Chemicals like copper sulphate, mercuric sulfide, copper carbonate, copper arsenite, vermillion, black lead etc were also used for coloring foods. The first synthetic food color, mauveine, was prepared in 1856 by oxidization of aniline. By the end of the nineteenth century, people got habituated in consuming synthetic food colors through cheese, ice cream, jellies, pasta, wine etc.

The food coloring regulation act was effective in various places from early days. Particularly when the colors became unhygienic, the medical associations took unanimous decision to prohibit the use of synthetic food colors. In United States, the Food and Drug Act of 1906 came into effect, which restricted the chemical food colors. Nowadays, most of the country has formed a committee to verify the quality of various food items including these coloring agents.

Image Courtesy: http://www.instructables.com

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Anonymous's picture
good article on food dye