How Much Colouring is in Food?

The law in Europe allows 43 colours with E-numbers to be used in foods. It also lists the foods which may be coloured and maximum levels of colour added to those foods. The variety of colours allows many different shades to be obtained.

The amount of colouring allowed in food is very low.

Synthetic colours are much brighter than natural colours and so are needed in only very low concentrations. Typically just 10 - 50 milligrammes (mg) in a kilogramme of food.

Natural colours are less intense than synthetic colours and so need to be used in higher concentrations. Natural colours are used in concentrations in the range of 0.05-10 grammes (10-10,000mg) per kilogramme of food.

Nature identical colours vary in usage levels but can be very efficient. For example, beta-carotene is used at levels of 1 to 30 mg per kilogramme of food.

Synthetic colours are also used because they are more stable than natural colours and so are suited to foods which may be stored before they are consumed.

Picture comparing amounts of food colouring

Levels of colouring in food are very low

Colour Challenge

Beta-carotene is used when making orange squash. How many litre bottles of orange squash do you think you would you need to use up in order to drink 1 litre of beta carotene?

Click on the bottle to find out

one bottle of orange squash

(That's 10 litre bottles every day for over 40 years!)

Safety

The safety of food colourings is a controversial area. Concern has been expressed, in particular, about synthetic colours. However, there is no logical or scientific reason to suggest that the coloured chemicals present in nature are any safer than those which are manufactured. All additives, including those used to colour food, have to be tested and shown to be safe. Nevertheless, some people are sensitive to certain colours and there are claims of links with hyperactivity, asthma and other allergic reactions (see Food Issues ).