Food production is increasingly characterized by the "voluntary use of chemicals, such as food additives, preservatives, stabilizers, emulsifiers, antioxidants, aimed at preserving, distributing and stabilizing the many food products available today.

The category of dyes, on the other hand, does not respond to specific technical needs but interacts on the psychic and emotional sphere of the consumer.

The perception of color, in fact, is immediate and the liking or refusal of the food depends on it. Dyes, (the definition of which appears in "Annex I of the framework regulation on food additives - Reg. EC 1333/2008 - which describes the various functional categories of the latter), are substances that give a color a food or restore its original coloring They include both the natural components of food and other elements of natural origin which, however, are not normally consumed as food or used as an ingredient for their preparation.

Pigments extracted from food and other edible materials of natural origin are dyes, thanks to physical and / or chemical processes.

Food colors can be added to foods to:

  • restore the original appearance to those foods that as a result of the processes of transformation, conservation, packaging and distribution have undergone discolouration that may have become unpleasant
  • increase their ability to attract the consumer
  • coloring food which is inherently colorless

To these reasons, compliant with current legislation, there are others such as:

  • ensure color uniformity correcting any natural variations in intensity
  • increase the color of a food when it is less intense than what the consumer is accustomed to associate with it
  • protect the aroma and light-sensitive vitamins from the sun's rays during food storage
  • provide a visual indication of the quality of the food

Types of dyes

The dyes intended for the food industry are distinguished on the basis of their origin in:

  • food dyes of natural origin, are extracted in different ways both from plant species that offer a wide range of colors, and from some animal species with coloration limited to red. The extracts obtained are concentrated and purified to isolate the desired colored substances. The costs of extraction, concentration and purification, as well as those of identification, are generally high
  • identical natural dyes, are chemically produced in order to faithfully reproduce the corresponding natural substance with high purity and at lower costs
  • artificial food colors, are produced by chemical processes and naturally free from similar correspondents

Natural dyes

Among the different natural dyes are present:

  • curcumin (E100), yellow-orange dye extracted from ground rhizomes of natural curcuma longa, a herbaceous plant native to Southeast Asia and widely used as a spice (curry). In the "food industry" E100 is used to color mustards, nuts, dairy products, confectionery products, ice cream.
  • riboflavin (E101), or lactoflavin, or vitamin B2, a yellow dye naturally present in milk, it is also present in many green vegetables, especially cabbage and tomatoes
  • cochineal (E120), a dye originating from Mexico and Guatemala, is obtained by drying the bodies of female insects dactylopius coccus (American cochineal) that lives on cacti or prickly pears. The E120, whose main component is carminic acid, it is mainly used as a colorant for aperitifs, ice creams, candies and syrups
  • chlorophylls (E140), green pigments present in most plants and algae, strongly absorb the red and violet radiation, complementary to the green color
  • caramel (E150), one of the oldest and most used dyes, is used in liqueurs, soft drinks, beers, in confectionery, in chocolate, in coffee substitutes. Although its primary function is to color, caramel is a colloid and it can also have the function of amalgamating and protecting against oxidation caused by light
  • charcoal (E153), dye obtained from the carbonization of vegetable substances such as wood, cellulose residues, peat and coconut shells or other shells
  • carotenoids, dyes found in plants or other photosynthetic organisms, such as algae and some species of bacteria; they protect against oxidation due to light
  • anthocyanins (E163), class of natural dyes produced by plants. Anthocyanins (or anthocyanins) are found in the flowers and fruits of almost all higher plants and in autumn leaves. The color can vary from red to blue

Synthetic dyes

Synthetic food dyes are classified based on the presence of different chemical groups within them. Some examples of artificial dyes include:

  • tartrazine (E102)
  • sunset yellow (E110)
  • azorubine (E122)
  • amaranth (E123)
  • cochineal red 4R (E124)
  • allura red AC (E129)
  • shiny black (E151)
  • brown HT (E155)
  • quinoline yellow (E104)
  • erythrosine (E127)
  • indigotine (E132)
  • patented blue V (E131)
  • bright blue FCF (E133)
  • green S (E142)

Most synthetic dyes are acids, substances that dissolve in water.


The lack of toxicity is an important requirement for all additives and even more so for dyes since their use is not essential for the preservation of food. The European Community promotes the study of the possible effects of food colors on human health, paying particular attention to those whose harmlessness is still controversial. The European Union legislation on food safety establishes in which foods the dyes can be used and the maximum quantities allowed for each type of food. It also requires dyes to undergo comprehensive and rigorous safety assessments before being authorized for use.

The approval by the Authority does not eliminate further and constant checks. The authorization to use can be revised, modified and possibly suspended.

Since 2002, the body responsible for guaranteeing control and evaluation activities at European level has been represented by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Worldwide, control and evaluation activities are carried out by the Joint FAO / WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA Joint FAO / WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives).

Authorization for use

Food colors authorized in Europe are classified according to their toxicological characteristics:

  • "quantum satis" authorized food colors (quantum satis), can be used, in accordance with good manufacturing practices, in quantities not exceeding that necessary to obtain the desired technological effect and on condition that consumers are not misled. There is no maximum quantity.
    Group II: authorized food colors quantum satis

E number


And 101


And 140

Chlorophylls and chlorophyllins

And 141

Complexes of chlorophylls and chlorophyllins

And 150a

Simple caramel

And 150b

Caustic sulphite caramel

And 150c

Ammonia caramel

And 150d

Sulphite-ammonia caramel

AND 153


And 160a


And 160c

Paprika extract, capsanthin, capsorubin

And 162

Beetroot red, betanin

And 163


AND 170

Calcium carbonate

And 171

Titanium dioxide

AND 172

Iron oxides and hydroxides

  • food dyes with combined maximum limit, substances that can be used only in compliance with the maximum limits defined in Community legislation.
    Group III: Food colors with combined maximum limit

E number


And 100


AND 102


AND 120

Cochineal, carminic acid, various types of carmine

AND 122

Azorubine, carmoisine

And 129

Allura red AC

And 131

Patented blue V

And 132

Indigo carmine, indigo carmine

AND 133

Brilliant blue FCF

And 151

Brilliant Black BN, Black BN

And 155

Bruno HT

And 160e

Beta-apo-8'-carotenal (C30)

And 161b



A food coloring in order to be used in the food industry must be Food Grade (food grade), i.e. compliant with certain characteristics indicated for each colorant in Regulation (EU) no. 231/2012 of 9 March 2012. The indications relating to the origin, the purity criteria and any other information necessary for its definition, are adopted upon the first inclusion of the dye in the Community lists of Regulation (EC) 1333/2008 .

The specifications are drawn up by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on the basis of the information contained in the authorization dossier, drawn up in accordance with Regulation (EC) No. 1331/2008 which establishes a uniform authorization procedure.

In-depth link

Ministry of Health. Food additives

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).Food coloring

Ministry of Health. National plan concerning the official control of food additives as they are and in food products (2015-2018)

Regulation (EU) No 232/2012 of the commission of 16 March 2012 amending Annex II of Regulation (EC) no. 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council as regards the conditions and levels of use of the substances quinoline yellow (E 104), sunset yellow FCF / orange yellow S (E 110) and ponceau 4R, cochineal red A (E 124)

Commission Regulation (EU) No. 1274/2013 of 6 December 2013 amending and correcting Annexes II and III of Regulation (EC) No. 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council and the annex to Regulation (EU) no. 231/2012 of the Commission as regards some food additives

Commission Regulation (EU) 2018/1472 of 28 September 2018 amending Annex II of Regulation (EC) No. 1333/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council and the Annex of Regulation (EU) No. 231/2012 of the Commission as regards substance E 120 Cochineal, carminic acid, various types of carmine

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