Does Food Coloring Have a Taste?

Does Food Coloring Have a Taste
Some food coloring has a taste, but most do not. However, the color of food does affect its perceived flavor.

Have you ever wondered whether food coloring has a taste? In other words, does adding color to food change its flavor? The short answer is yes, but the explanation is a bit more complicated. FDA certified colors are a set of both artificial and natural colors that do not add undesirable flavors to foods. There are also other colors that are exempt from certification that come from animals, vegetables, and minerals that sometimes do add flavors. In most cases, so little food coloring gets added that it essentially has no taste. But, if you add enough dye, there usually is a flavor. Also, the color of food changes the brain’s perception of both its odor and flavor.

The FDA’s Certified Colors

There are nine chemicals that are additives certified for food coloring. The FDA makes no claim that these colors lack flavor. Rather, they don’t add a negative flavor (when used in ordinary quantities). The dyes are soluble in water and dissociate into ions. If you taste just the food coloring (not recommended), they can taste salty, bitter, or metallic. Most of the colorings contain sodium, although one contains iodine. You can reduce the impact of food coloring on flavor by using food color paste instead of liquid food coloring drops because you need less product to achieve the desired color. Here is the list of certified colors in the United States:

FD&C ColorNameColorChemical Formula
Blue No. 1Brilliant Blue FCFBlueC37H34N2Na2O9S3
Blue No. 2Indigotine or indigo carmineIndigoC16H8N2Na2O2S2
Green No. 3Fast Green FCFTurquoiseC37H34N2Na2O10S3
Red No. 3ErythrosinePinkC20H6I4Na2O5
Red No. 40Allura Red ACRedC18H14N2Na2O8S2
Yellow No. 5TartrazineYellowC16H9N4Na3O9S2
Yellow No. 6Sunset Yellow FCFOrangeC16H10N2Na2O7S2

With the exception of blue #2, the FD&C colors are petrochemicals. Blue #2 (indigotine) is derived from the blue dye (indigo) made from a plant.

There are different certified colors in other countries. For example, some colors for use in the EU include E100 (turmeric), E104 (quinoline yellow), E122 (carmoisine), E124 (Pounceau 4R), E131 (patent blue V), and E142 (green S). The E numbers include both natural and artificial colors that are approved for use in food.

The Exempt Colors

Natural colors are exempt from FDA oversight. These include pigments from plants, such as fruit juices, annatto extract (yellow), caramel (golden), chlorophyll (green), grape skin extract (green, red), and dehydrated beets (brown, purple, red). Beta-carotene is exempt, but it may come from either natural or synthetic sources. Certain natural salts have colors (e.g., pink Himalayan salt). Some food coloring comes from animals, such as carmine red (cochineal insect). Some of these food colorings are flavorless, while others have flavors. For example, cherry juice acts as both a coloring and a flavoring, usually in sweet, fruity products.

Crystal Pepsi and Caramel Color

Some products include food coloring for both color and taste. Consider the flavor of caramel color.

If you tasted Crystal Pepsi during its brief release in 1992-1994 or its subsequent re-releases, you know some food colorings have a definite effect on flavor. Crystal Pepsi undoubtedly had its fans, but most people disliked the product because it tasted nothing like a cola. Partially, this was the omission of caramel color, which imparts both a brown color and sweet, caramel scent and flavor. Crystal Pepsi also lacked caffeine, which brings a pleasant bitter undertone to cola.

Red 40 and the Case of Red Velvet Cake

Many people consider red velvet cake as an example of the unpleasant or at least distinctive flavor of food coloring. Usually, the red color of red velvet cake comes from a massive amount of red 40. While red 40 does have a slightly bitter taste, its presence actually is not the main reason why red velvet cake tastes different from other chocolate cakes. Red velvet cake gets its tangy flavor and distinctive texture from the combination of ingredients it contain, including buttermilk, vinegar, and baking soda.

Your Brain Gives Food Coloring a Flavor

A big part of the flavor of food coloring is all in your mind. Numerous studies show that we perceive flavor in part due to a food or beverage’s color. For example, red candy tastes sweeter to taste-testers than other colors of candy, even if the ingredients are otherwise identical. Color also gives food a scent, even if it doesn’t put odor molecules into the air. As an example, one study asked tasters to describe the notes of a wine. The original white wine had the expected white wine notes, but adding food coloring to the white wine caused the subjects to detect darker notes, like cherry and currant, that are associated with red wine.

The takeaway is that your brain associates the color of food with certain scents and flavors. So, adding food coloring changes the taste of food even when it doesn’t chemically alter its flavor.