close of up pink salmon flesh

Why the Government Controls the Color of Our Food

People tend to take food color for granted. It’s a given that oranges are orange and salmon is salmon, and people judge whether foods are ripe or expired based on their appearance. So many Americans might be shocked to learn that certain food colors are determined by the government, not by nature. For instance, oranges could have been a ripe green when picked from the tree, and salmon does not look as vibrant naturally. Yet the long history of dyeing food in the U.S. began in the 1800s with the arrival of margarine.

The Battle Between Margarine and Butter

In the 1860s, butter was a pricey item. Consumers wished for a cheaper and less-perishable alternative, which they got it in 1870 when margarine came to the U.S. It had been invented by chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès in France, and it was a hit, to the chagrin of dairy farmer and butter manufacturers.

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However, margarine naturally looked like lard. To make it a better butter alternative, manufacturers dyed it yellow. Members of the dairy industry petitioned the federal government which created the Oleomargarine Act in 1886. For any margarine, dyed yellow or not, there was a 2-cent per pound tax. Aside from being one of the first bills involving food dyes, this was one of the first cases of businesses enlisting the government to combat competition.

As the butter industry persisted, over two dozen states created their own regulations on food dyes. Some banned yellow-colored variations outright while some ruled margarine had to be dyed pink. Plus, in 1902, the federal government increased the tax on yellow-dyed margarine to 10 cents per pound while uncolored margarine got reduced to one-fourth of a cent. To evade the extra fee, factories started using oil that would naturally turn the product yellow or included separate yellow dye with the margarine for consumers to mix at home. In fact, coloring margarine became a regular household chore. At last, in 1950, the government repealed the 1902 act, and Wisconsin, one of the largest states in terms of dairy, repealed its own anti-margarine ruling in 1967. [1]

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The Government’s “Grade Standards

As the idea of dyeing food products took off, the federal government passed the Food and Drugs Act in 1906. It banned harmful food colors and additives used to disguise unlabeled damaged or inferior goods. Seven colors were considered safe to consume, but today there are nine colors deemed safe. The government also created “grade standards” to monitor food colors, as well as shape, size, and other details.

For instance, in 1917, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) set the first federal grade standard for the humble potato, soon followed by other fruits and vegetables. Followed by standards for canned goods to fight misbranding and adulteration of these products. 

In the 1970s, governmental food regulation became increasingly invested in the safety of chemical additives, including food coloring. The once popular Red Dye No. 2 became controversial because of its potential unhealthy effects. It got banned in 1976, leading to companies switching from Red Dye No. 2 to another dye and other companies avoiding red products entirely. This included M&M candies, which had never included Red Dye No. 2. But because of the confusion and negative association, red M&Ms disappeared for almost a decade, replaced with new colors like green, orange, yellow, and brown. [2]

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Artificial Food Colors Today

History has shown the government’s hand in the colors of food. Nowadays, it’s easy to miss this kind of intervention because people are used to foods looking a certain way — the way the government intended. For instance, feed for farmed salmon often includes red coloring to make the fish look bright salmon-pink. Regularly, farmed salmon looks gray but the dyes better simulate wild salmon, which has naturally pinkish meat. 

Oranges seem to be a misnomer because naturally the fruit sometimes looks green, depending on the climate. In the 1930s, citrus farmers in Florida began to dye the rind to meet consumers’ expectations of the fruit. Some states also adopted the practice while others, like Arizona and California, banned it.

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“The standard the government uses is a reasonable [safety] standard,” said Michael Roberts, executive director at Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy.  “So they don’t have to be foolproof, 100-percent proven safe, but they have to be shown to be reasonably safe. So, we allow these little exceptions to the 100-percent rule, no-risk rule, in order to accommodate a modern food system of having foods that are manufactured in different colors and taste in a variety of foods.”

After all, it makes sense in theory to make food products look as desirable as possible. But many would disagree this is the ideal way to go about it. “The problem with that is beyond just the questions of deception and safety is the question of, is this the kind of food system we want,” concluded Roberts. [3]

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Sources

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  1. “Why the Government Controls the Color of Our Food.Cheddar. Lawrence Banton. February 26, 2021
  2. “How the Government Came to Decide the Color of Your Food.Smithsonian Magazine. Ai Hisano. January 15, 2020
  3. “The Color of Food.Harvard University Press. March 16, 2020
Sarah Biren
Freelance Writer
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender.
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