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A short tale of artificial food colouring and corporate co-operation

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

It's easy to talk about the problems in any industry, but we like to focus on the positives when we can and this really is a good story to illustrate how rapid improvement is very achievable.

Fairy Bread with Artificial Colour Sprinkles

A brief history of food colouring in the UK

So the good news is that we’ve come a very long way from the early days of industrial-scale food manufacturing when it was common to include poisons in food to make them look more appetising, ironically.

Mercury, lead and copper oxide were used in many items from bread, to sauces and potted meats or bottled veg. Confectionary with the brightest colours specifically designed to appeal to children were some of the most toxic products.

In 1925, attempts were made to limit harmful additives with a list of banned substances that was easily sidestepped. The switch to a permitted list made far more progress to improve safety of processed foods from the 50’s, and regulation tightened further when Britain joined the EU.

Here progress in regulation stalls somewhat. In 2007, studies from the University of Southampton were published in support of the theory that several artificial colours had effects of inducing hyperactivity and triggering allergies in children. Proving causal links was harder however, and so the regulation remains unchanged to this day.

The UK Food Standards Agency instead instigated a somewhat creative solution; requiring any food products sold in the UK that contained any of the six “Southampton colours” to include on the label:

“May have an effect on activity and attention in children”.

Manufacturers who removed these colours from their products were also encouraged to add their names to a freely accessible published list. The EU swiftly followed, and the combined effect of these two measures was the rapid disappearance of the six colours from food products, particularly confectionery and soft drinks, in Britain and the rest of Europe.

A win for voluntary corporate cooperation when faced with a well-informed consumer.

Fun with natural food colouring

Making a colourful stack of healthy pancakes is super simple. Just whizz up your chosen colouring in a food processor, add a little water if needed to loosen it up, and simply swap half the amount of milk used in your normal pancake recipe for the selected puree. For example, if you normally use 1 cup of milk, swap in for ½ cup of puree and ½ cup milk.

You could let the kids have a go at mixing the colours up but some guidance is advised to avoid a brown sludge effect.

1. Pink -> 1 cup fresh strawberries or raspberries 2. Red -> beetroot juice (easiest drained from a pack of pre-cooked plain beetroot) 3. Orange -> 1 cup grated carrots 4. Green -> 1 cup packed spinach 5. Purple -> 1 cup fresh blueberries

Super Hulk Pancakes:

Take your spinach green pancakes and fill with cottage cheese, avocado slices, tomatoes and fine slices of red onion. Squeeze over some lime, or chilli sauce if preferred. Top with an egg for a more filling option.


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