The Paradoxical Quest to Make Food Look 'Natural' With Artificial Dyes

Research by Ai Hisano looks at how industry players and regulators collectively decided what butter, oranges, and other foods should look like—and how they redefined the meaning of “natural.”
  • 11 Jan 2017
  • By Carmen Nobel

A few years ago, the website thisdishisvegetarian.com reported that Starbucks’ popular Strawberry and Crème Frappuccino got its pink color not from strawberries, but from a dye made of crushed-up cochineal insects. Vegan consumers cried foul, and mainstream media outlets picked up the story. So, Starbucks decided to stop using cochineal extract and start using lycopene to dye its drinks pink instead.

Lycopene is a red pigment found in several fruits, but strawberries are not among them. The lycopene that now colors strawberry Frappuccinos is tomato-based. The upshot: in lieu of bugs, Starbucks is using tomatoes to make its strawberry-flavored drinks look more strawberry-like. It’s a natural ingredient, but not what nature intended. Yet that part of the story didn’t garner headlines. While crushed-up bugs may alarm some people, most of us tend to take the fact of food coloring for granted.

Credit: Blair Storie-Johnson

“Today, we tend to view color as an ingredient,” says Ai Hisano, the Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in Business History at Harvard Business School.

Hisano is author of the HBS working paper, “Standardized Color in the Food Industry: The Co-Creation of the Food Coloring Business in the United States, 1870-1940,” which examines a seminal period when food manufacturers, dye makers, and regulators created the synthetic food coloring industry. She is working on a wide-ranging book on the color of foods. (Her book project was featured recently on Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians.)

Hisano’s paper looks at how industry players and regulators collectively decided what any given food is supposed to look like—and redefined the marketing meaning of “natural.”

The quest for summery butter and orange oranges

“In the food industry, color standardization meant asserting the idea of naturalness… even as manufacturers imposed a ‘natural’ color through artificial dyes,” Hisano writes.

Take butter, for example. “The color of butter fluctuates, depending on the season,” Hisano explains during a recent interview in her HBS office.

From early summer through early autumn, cows eat green grass, which is rich in the orange pigment beta-carotene. The pigment colors the fat in the cows’ milk, which gives the butter a golden color. But, in winter, cows don’t eat grass. Rather, they eat grain, which, unless it has been genetically modified, does not contain much beta-carotene.

Wells & Richardson Co. advertisement, Chicago Dairy Produce 23, no.2, May 1916

Thus, winter butter is whiter than summer butter. It’s also arguably less tasty. “Because the flavor of butter was richer in the summer, there was the impression that the yellow golden color was better, too,” Hisano says. “So producers started coloring their winter butter with a golden shade to make it look tasty. The color was known as ‘June shade.’”

The practice dates back to at least the fourteenth century in Europe, Hisano says. Dairy farmers would color their butter with carrot juice and annatto, a dye derived from achiote tree seeds, to make their butter look summery all year round.

Late in the nineteenth century, dye manufacturers started supplying synthetic food coloring to dairy producers for the purpose of coloring butter and cheese, which essentially spearheaded the synthetic food dye industry.

Hisano cites companies such as Wells, Richardson & Co. and Heller & Merz Company, which introduced dedicated dyes for butter coloring in the late 1870s. Synthetic dyes decreased the cost of coloring butter significantly.

H. Kohnstamm & Co. advertisement, Confectioners Journal, January 1906

“In 1907, the cost of vegetable butter colors was about $2.00 ($50 in 2015 US dollars) per gallon, while synthetic dyes cost about $1.60 to $1.70 ($40 to $45 in 2015 US dollars),” she writes. “The amount of vegetable colors required to impart satisfactory color to butter was about two to three times more than the amount required of synthetic dyes.”

On the marketing side, the dairy industry pushed the ironic notion that artificial color was necessary to make butter “look like butter.” The synthetic dye manufacturers collectively determined the ideal color to make butter look “natural” all-year-round—even though the true color of butter fluctuated throughout the year.

“Uniformity of color was one of the qualities that butter color makers stressed to their customers,” Hisano writes, citing a 1905 advertisement in which Wells, Richardson boasted that its color “never varies.”

Other food manufacturers followed suit in the paradoxical quest to make their products look more “natural” with artificial dyes. In the early 1900s, meat packers started using synthetic dyes to make their products look pinker (and therefore fresher).

Meanwhile, Florida citrus growers were struggling with the fact that some oranges stayed green in color, even after ripening, due to the consistently hot climate. “They tasted good, but they looked green,” Hisano adds.

In the early 1930s, they started soaking their oranges in synthetic dye to make the fruit look more orange and, therefore, riper, as though the color “was a malleable, external characteristic of the food,” Hisano says—per consumer perception that an orange should live up to its name.

“By the 1940s, the so-called color-add process had been widely adopted in Florida,” she writes. “During the 1946-1947 season, twenty-one million out of thirty million boxes of fresh oranges shipped out of state were colored with synthetic dyes.”

By the 1930s, synthetic food dyes were used routinely in sausages, pastas, candies, ice cream, and a host of other foods. By 2016, the global food dye market had grown to about $1.5 billion.

Taking the danger out of dye

When synthetic dyes first hit the market, there was not yet any federal or state regulation of food coloring techniques in the United States. As a result, more than 80 substances were utilized to dye food, and some of those substances were toxic. Chalk was used to make bread whiter; lead chromate was used to make milk look creamier; and various poisonous ingredients were used to create bright colors for various candies, reportedly causing some children to fall ill or even die.

Hisano highlights key dates in food coloring regulation history.

The Food and Drug Act of 1906 prohibited the addition of poisonous substances to sweets and the coloring of foods for the purpose of concealing damage or inferiority. This spurred government-funded research on food-dye safety.

In 1907, the US Department of Agriculture certified seven synthetic dyes safe for food use, based on the investigations and advice of chemist Bernhard Hesse. However, the USDA didn’t require the use of certified dyes—or even the certification of food dyes, much to Hesse’s chagrin; it was still legal to use uncertified dyes, provided the food labels noted addition of artificial coloring and the dyes used in confectionery hadn’t (yet) been found to be poisonous. The use of certified colors didn’t become mandatory until 1938, when Congress passed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Even so, the initial Food and Drug Act shone a light on the importance of food safety, and natural dye regained popularity, despite the inconvenience of extracting color from plants and seeds. For instance, American dye and food producers imported some 914,000 pounds of annatto from Jamaica in 1935, up from 364,000 pounds in 1887.

Throughout the twentieth century, consumer watchdogs and activists opposed the use of chemical additives in food, and they continue to do so today. Major companies have responded to the demand. Nestlé pledged to remove artificial color from its candy bars in 2015, for example. General Mills promised in the same year to phase out artificial colors from its cereals. And Kraft’s signature macaroni and cheese no longer comes packaged with a Day-Glo orange powder, thanks to a pledge to stop using artificial dyes (Yellow 5 and Yellow 6) in the product.

“Due to consumer protests against synthetic colors, the standardization of color moved from being an opportunity to being a challenge for food manufacturers,” Hisano writes in the conclusion of her paper.

That said, color continues to be an important ingredient in packaged foods.

“My research on food coloring is an early example of how companies pay attention to consumers’ senses and how they try to pay attention to the consumers’ eyes as well as their sense of taste,” she notes. “The two are intertwined.”

For her second book project, she’s looking at how companies produce and market products that appeal not only to a consumer’s vision and taste, but also texture and sound, across different industries.

Sound? “Yes,” she says. “Crunch is important for some foods.”

In the spring, Hisano will co-host a conference on the senses and marketing, to be held at Harvard Business School. The tentative name of the conference: Capitalism and the Senses.

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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