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Benefits And Side Effects of Commonly Used Natural Food Color Additives

Updated on November 22, 2016
beverley byer profile image

Beverley Byer has been writing professionally for a number of years. Her work has been published in magazines and newspapers.

We humans have a long history of using color additives to make our foods look and taste delicious. Evidence found, showed that natural food dyes were used by ancient Romans and Egyptians. Synthetic food colors replaced the naturals in the 19th century because they were less expensive to make and manufacturers were able to exercise greater control over the intensity of flavor and texture. When concerns arose about safety, however, conscientious manufacturers returned to the use of natural foods pigments.

Overall, these pigments are safer and most provide a myriad of health benefits. But there are also side effects. Although there is no specific evidence of danger (Studies performed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have been limited and inconclusive, see Precision Nutrition blog "All About Food Color Additives" by Ryan Andrews), they could prove to be quite harmful. Consumers have reported problems from allergies to renal and liver malfunctions; certain cancers to interference with anticoagulants and insulin. Below is a list of the benefits and side effects of some of our frequently used natural food color additives.

Curry powder with turmeric
Curry powder with turmeric | Source


Turmeric powder is made from grinding the orange meat of the rhizomes of the Curcuma longa plant which is native to South Asia. It is used in curries, soups, cheese, mustard, salad dressings, spices, and baked goods. Curcumin, the main ingredient, is said treat certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular afflictions, stomach ulcers, cirrhosis, and the flu. The powder is also used as an antiseptic.

Over consumption or prolonged use, however, is known to cause gastrointestinal diseases such as ulcers; interfere with blood clotting especially in patients on anticoagulants as warfarin or Coumadin; decrease the effects of chemotherapy; interact poorly with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as ibuprofen and naproxen; induce premature labor and bleeding in pregnant women, and create adverse effects on nursing or breast feeding moms.


This food color is made from the red seeds of the Bixa orellana or achiote tree which is native to South America and the Caribbean. It provides yellow and red color and flavor to dairy products, meats, salad dressings, and spices. It is used frequently in native South American and Caribbean cuisine. Benefits include treatment for snake bites, burn blisters, epilepsy, sleep disorders, ear infections, coughs, flu, fevers, nausea, asthma, hypertension, hepatitis, venereal diseases, vaginal issues, and constipation. It is also used to enhance the efficacy of cancer treatments and as an insect repellent.

Side effects, on the other hand, include anaphylaxis -hives, swelling, shortness of breath, low blood pressure; exaggerated renal problems; diabetes -lowers the blood’s glucose level; hypoglycemia; interference with anticoagulants, NSAIDS, blood pressure medication as chlorthalidone, pregnant and nursing women.

Beet root
Beet root | Source

Beetroot/ Beet Juice

Though several parts of the beet plant are edible, the bulbous roots are most commonly used to make red color. Powder or juice is added to beverages, dairy products, cereals, jams, jellies, ice cream, other desserts, candy, sauces, seasonings, and processed meats. Beets are fiber-rich and have high concentrations of antioxidants, vitamin C, foliates, iron, manganese, and magnesium. As juice, it benefits patients with colon cancer, anemia, liver and kidney ailments, cardiovascular diseases, immune deficiencies, and obesity. It is also used to cleanse the body.

Just as beets help patients with renal issues, it can also harm them. Its high concentration of oxalates can increase the severity of kidney stones. Additional side effects include allergic symptoms such as rashes, swelling, chills, fever, and heart palpitations. Some consumers have even reported a tightness or closing of the throat. Pregnant and nursing women are advised to consume with caution.

Paprika powder
Paprika powder | Source


The dried fruits of the peppery shrub, Capsicum annum are used to make paprika powder. It adds flavor, aroma, and red-orange color to processed meats, dairy, sauces, salad dressings, other spices, and the traditional foods of Hungry and Serbia where the plant originates. Its high levels of antioxidants, beta-carotene, lutein, and vitamin A makes it good remedy for nausea, digestive afflictions, constipation, kidney ailments, cardiovascular disease, skin conditions, and alcohol addiction.

Side effects of paprika are allergic reactions, especially in people with low tolerance for peppers and according to one study, latex, gastrointestinal diseases, colds, and the flu. It further reacts poorly with drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, antibiotics, pain killers, and dietary supplements. Pregnant and nursing women should also exercise caution.


Saffron was one of the many natural food dyes used by ancient Romans and Egyptians who believed that brightly colored foods provided physical and spiritual healing. The stigmas, styles, and bulbs of the Crocus sativas plant, which was discovered in a number of countries including Iran, Greece, Italy, and Spain, are pulverized into a bright yellow powder. It adds color to the same types of food as paprika. With healthy quantities of vitamins A, C, B2, B3, folic acid, and the minerals iron, zinc, copper, potassium, selenium, and calcium, it provides therapies for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, digestive ailments, cardiovascular diseases, hemoptysis (spitting up blood), whooping cough, infections, insomnia, stress, dry skin, menstrual cramps, premature ejaculation, and flatulence.

High doses of saffron can cause allergies, poisoning, and miscarriages. There have also been reports of drowsiness, dizziness, anxiety, jaundice, worsened asthma, bloody urine and diarrhea, nosebleeds, hyper sexuality, and impulsive behaviors.

Grapes ('Autumn Fruit', Boston Public Library)
Grapes ('Autumn Fruit', Boston Public Library) | Source

Grapes/ Grapes Skin

Grape extract gets its purple pigmentation from the anthocyanin compounds in the skin and flesh of the fruit. I mention this because it is the only U.S. approved anthocyanin food additive. It is used in beverages, jams, jellies, ice cream, other desserts, yogurt, and candy. Rich in antioxidants, glycids, tartaric acid, iron, copper, manganese, potassium and vitamins A, B1, B2, and C makes it helpful in preventing and lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, anemia, diabetes, some cancers, liver and kidney disorders, eye and nerve afflictions, rheumatism, arthritis, and gout as well as reducing bad LDL cholesterol.

The food color additive can also cause allergies, nausea, headache, stomachache, diarrhea, sore throat, coughs, muscular conditions, and bad interaction with anticoagulants. Pregnant and nursing women should not overindulge.

Product with caramel coloring
Product with caramel coloring | Source

Caramel Coloring

This additive is most widely used to color our foods various shades of brown. It is produced from high-temperature caramelizing of natural sugars and starches and is divided into four classes depending on what, if any, chemical agent is used to assist the process. Class one, plain caramel color, contains the least amount of extra agents. Class two, sulfite caramel, contains –as the name implies- sulfite. Class three, ammonia caramel, again as the name implies, contains ammonia. Class four, sulfite ammonia caramel, contains -you guessed it- both sulfite and ammonia. This last class raises the most concern. It is found in soft drinks, soups, cereals, breads, other baked goods, gravies, soy sauce, seasonings, processed meats, and pet food. Despite the possible harmful effects of those extra chemical compounds, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration require no certification as they do with F D and C pigments. Hence caramel food color is considered natural (though not organic).

Caramel provides little or no health or nutritional benefits. It is used purely for visual aesthetics and better texture. And there are important health concerns such as asthma, certain cancers, diabetes, immune deficiencies, celiac disease, allergies, and poor drug interactions.

Before We Consume Natural Food Color Additives

Unless we grow and prepare everything we eat ourselves, it is impossible to avoid food additives natural or synthetic. But we can limit our intake by reading ingredients on food labels carefully, researching the meaning of words and the processes we do not understand, consulting our healthcare professionals: doctors, nutritionists, dietitians, and most of all, consuming within reason.

For more information, check the U.S. Government's "Food Safety" website and the Food and Drug Administration.


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    • beverley byer profile imageAUTHOR

      Beverley Byer 

      3 years ago from United States of America

      Indeed! Appreciate your comment!

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Food colorings are an important issue to be aware of and you've provided useful info to use as a springboard for researching what we read about on labels. Today we can stand in the grocery store with a our cell phones and other devices to do the research on the spot. Not much excuse not to do it now! :)

    • beverley byer profile imageAUTHOR

      Beverley Byer 

      5 years ago from United States of America

      DDE, thanks for your comment!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      An informative hub with unique spices and the daily issues. All herbal products and spices have their side effects. Moderation is key.


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