I got an ice cream maker almost a year ago, and now I make all of my own ice cream. I haven’t purchased any store-bought ice cream in almost 12 months, and I don’t miss it. I can make pretty much any flavour I want, and when I make it I know exactly what goes into it. There are no unpronounceable ingredients, high-fructose corn syrup or artificial flavours. It’s still ice cream, so it’s not exactly health food, but I feel better eating my ice cream than any other ice cream.
One of the things that I’ve noticed since I started making my own ice cream is the difference in colour. When I make mint chocolate chip using peppermint extract, my ice cream is basically white. It looks more like vanilla ice cream with chocolate chips added than traditional mint chocolate chip. And ditto my maple walnut – it’s much lighter than store-bought maple walnut ice cream, although it tastes every bit as good.
As I munch on my pale-coloured frozen confection, it occurs to me that we consume a lot of colours in our packaged foods, without even thinking. I don’t think about it that much, anyway. I mean, sure, if we’re talking candy canes or kool-aid, I know that there’s bound to be colour in it. But I don’t think about colouring in ice cream, bread, cheese or margarine. And yet all of these foods have it.
Colour is flavourless, but its addition can definitely make foods more appealing. Take margarine, for example. It looks far more appetizing because it’s yellow, like butter. In fact, in the Canadian province of Quebec there was a law that remained on the books until 2008 that forbid the colouring of margarine. This law was originally created to placate dairy farmers, who wanted margarine to look less appetizing than butter. And I have to say that I certainly enjoy that creamy yellow colour.
As I think about food colouring, a few things strike me. The first is that its widespread use is essentially a marketing ploy for processed food. When things look good, we’re more likely to want to eat them. That’s hardly a huge leap to make. It’s true even for non-packaged foods, in fact. When I’m choosing apples at the market, I opt for the ones with the right size and colour. Colour provides us one clue as to what an apple will taste like. That instinct to choose the best colour can be put to use by manufacturers whether they make chicken nuggets, cookies or pudding.
Another thing that strikes me is that there aren’t always clear answers about the safety of various colouring agents. Food colouring comes from a variety of sources. Natural colouring is derived from plants, seeds, spices and even insects. Artificial colouring comes from a lab, and may not bear much resemblance to anything edible. For example, FD&C Yellow #5 contains tartrazine, which is derived from coal tar. Bugs and coal tar don’t exactly sound so yummy to me.
Let’s pick on tartrazine a little more. In some people, this additive causes allergic reactions. And there have been reports that its consumption, as well as the consumption of other food additives, leads to hyperactivity in children. There was a randomized, controlled study in the UK in 2007 that confirmed these findings.
But tartrazine isn’t alone. Studies have found different concerns with other food colouring, as well. For instance, FD&C Red #5 uses erythrosine, which is linked to thyroid tumors in rats. And natural colouring doesn’t get a pass, either. Carmine, which is a natural red dye, is derived from insects and isn’t vegan, vegetarian or kosher. And in some rare cases, it causes severe allergic reactions.
Let me be clear – I eat coloured food all the time. I have ice cream in my freezer right now that I added cinnamon hearts to, and I can guarantee you those don’t get their lovely, red hue by ripening on trees. Even my pristine ice cream has colouring, even if I don’t add it directly. My kids also eat food with colouring, and given the reality of life, I don’t see that stopping. I’m not ready to make all of my own food from ingredients I raise myself.
All the same, I think it’s important to be aware that a good portion of what we buy at the grocery store is coloured in order to make it more appealing. Those colours are not added because they’re good for us, they’re added to convince us that food will taste good, even though they have no actual effect on the taste. Reducing our consumption of processed foods where we can reduces our exposure to potentially harmful food colouring, and it will probably also lead to consuming better food, overall. Nobody needs to add colouring to make carrots orange, after all.
Now, I would really like to hear your thoughts. Do you think about colouring in food? Have you ever noticed a reaction in yourself or your kids when you consume certain additives? And would you be willing to eat food that wasn’t so appealingly coloured? Please share!