Standardized Color in the Food Industry: The Co-Creation of the Food Coloring Business in the United States, 1870–1940

by Ai Hisano

Overview — Beginning in the late 19th century, US food manufacturers tried to create the “right” color of foods that many consumers would recognize and in time take for granted. The United States became a leading country in the food coloring business with the rise of extensive mass marketing. By 1938, when Congress enacted the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the food coloring business had become a central and permanent component of food marketing strategies. This paper shows how food manufacturers, dye makers, and regulators co-created the food coloring business. Food-coloring practices became integrated into an entire strategy of manufacturing and marketing in the food industry.

Author Abstract

This working paper examines how, starting in the 1870s, food manufacturers in the United States began to use standardized color, achieved by synthetic dyes, as part of their marketing strategies. Food manufacturers along with dye makers and regulators co-created the food-coloring business. Synthetic food dyes provided the food manufacturers with new tools for shaping and standardizing the color of foods, which had previously been colored with dyes extracted from natural plants and organic minerals, helping them to achieve mass production and mass marketing. Color was easier to control, reproduce, and commoditize than other sensory factors such as smell and texture. The federal Food and Drug Act of 1906 further assisted the management of product color in the food business by regulating and endorsing the industry's color control practices. By 1938, food dyes had achieved such widespread use, and had raised such public concern, that the federal government amended the 1906 Act to implement more stringent measures to regulate the industry.

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