Showdown of the six

By Michelle Knott

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Natural colours, E number, Eu

Showdown of the six
It's High Noon for the notorious 'Southampton six' food colourings, reports Michelle Knott

They are the most notorious gang in the food colourings world, with frazzled parents blaming them for turning their little darlings into a bunch of snarling, hyperactive troublemakers. But it's High Noon for the 'Southampton six', as the EU prepares to run them out of town.

By July 2010, food or drink sold in Europe that contains any of the six colours included in a 2007 study from the University of Southampton will have to carry warnings about a possible link with hyperactivity in children. Many manufacturers see this as little better than an invitation to a lynching, and are busy reformulating products to exclude the offending colours. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) which commissioned the original study went even further, promoting a voluntary ban on all six colours by the end of 2009. Manufacturers, retailers and caterers are continuing to sign up in droves to the FSA's list of 'Southampton six'-free products.

Gang of six

The gang includes sunset yellow FCF (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102) and ponceau 4R (E124). But just how strong is the evidence against these so-called offenders? The original study looked at the effect of two mixtures of colours, plus the preservative sodium benzoate. In March 2008, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that it could not be used as a basis for altering the acceptable daily intake (ADI) of the individual additives.

In a more recent twist, EFSA has since begun a wide-ranging review of scientific evidence in order to update its safety advice for all additives. As a result, the authority announced in November 2009 that it had lowered the ADIs for quinoline yellow, sunset yellow and ponceau 4R. However, the reasons in each case had nothing to do with hyperactivity, according to John Larsen, who chaired the review panel: "We have now reduced the ADIs for three of the six colours we assessed, but for different reasons in each case as different data were available on each individual compound. The data that is currently available including the Southampton study itself did not substantiate a causal link between the individual colours and possible behavioural effects."

The panel also concluded that the current evidence did not support a change in the ADIs for the other three colours.

Regardless of whether it's rough justice or not, the looming EU labelling deadline and the UK's voluntary ban kept many manufacturers busy with reformulation work. According to Lionel Schmitt of Chr Hansen's colour division, there's a long way to go: "Only a small part of the work has taken place so far. We've seen a huge acceleration since October/November. I'd say some countries such as the UK, Germany and France started almost immediately, but others are only now starting to pay attention, especially in southern and eastern Europe."

Costlier naturals

One of the main reasons that some manufacturers are slow to market with natural colour alternatives is the additional cost, says Martyn Lock of natural colours supplier Overseal: "A lot of businesses have already done the reformulation and stability work and are ready to switch. However, due to the impact on costs, businesses are holding off from launching until they specifically have to [by July].

"We usually work on a 10-fold difference in cost-in-use compared with synthetic colours. Colours are usually present at 0.05 or 0.1% of the total product, so you might be looking at an increase of a few pence on a case of finished product. In this competitive climate, retailers will be reluctant to increase prices, which will invariably impact on the supply chain."

Vince Martin of Sensient Colors UK, which offers both synthetic and natural colours, reckons the 10 times rule of thumb is conservative in some instances: "The cost can be 12 or 20 times higher and that comes straight off the bottom line. That can mean some producers may have to consider the consequences of labelling because they do not have the margin to absorb such increases. So some are waiting and some are agonising over whether to label."

The other challenge is technical, since synthetic colours tend to be 'bullet proof' while naturals are more fragile. "It's wrong to think that you can replace these colours with natural colours on a like-for-like basis," says Martin. "It's a very multi-dimensional problem and all solutions are liable to be a compromise. Put it this way: shelf-life was not determined by the colour [in the past] and in quite a lot of cases, now it will be."

"The primary characteristics to be considered are hue, solubility and stability," explains Carol Locey of naturals specialist Kalsec. For example, while synthetic sunset yellow is water soluble, the carotenoid-based alternatives are oil soluble. Locey also says that suppliers are working hard to close the gap on stability and shelf-life. "Quality natural colour ingredients in combination with packaging that reduces oxygen and light exposure can go a long way to achieving similar stability to synthetic colours."

Natural colours

And it's not just the product itself that might need rethinking, adds Martin: "Natural colours call for different handling. Some industries have developed very efficient ways of working based on using synthetic colours, so switching to naturals could affect the entire process."

Making the necessary changes could mean even more expense, on top of the higher direct cost of the natural colours, and that's forcing companies to consider their options.

"We're seeing some companies make the change to naturals in two steps, according to the technical and economic challenges they face," says Schmitt. "They remove the Southampton six colours in the first step and replace them with other synthetic colours. They can then take their time in moving from the preliminary alternatives into naturals."

Thankfully, all six problem colours are in the yellow-orange-red part of the spectrum, where there is a plentiful supply of candidate replacements. It would have been a different story if they had been blues, where the coverage by naturals is much patchier. But with consumers favouring naturals across the board, there is still a strong incentive to look for natural blue solutions, not least because they might also combine with natural yellows to produce more brilliant natural greens.

Most natural blues are based on anthocyanins, which favour high-pH applications and thus rule out major product areas, such as fizzy drinks. But US-based company Wild Flavors claimed last year to have solved the problem with a natural blue that stays true down to pH2.5. Product manager Chad Ford says: "Wild's blue colour is water soluble, suitable for the entire pH range of food and beverage applications and has a clean aroma and taste. The colour is made from a blend of fresh fruits commonly found in the Americas." The company is "progressing with the necessary steps" for entry into the EU market, but that could take some time.

Spirulina extract

Of course, the food industry is nothing if not ingenious, and some manufacturers have already adopted working solutions for natural blues. For example, spirulina extract is an ingredient in the latest incarnation of blue Smarties, among others.

However, spirulina extract is not on the EU's list of approved additives and does not have an E-number. So how do the manufacturers use it to colour food legally? They do so by classifying spirulina extract not as an additive but as a 'colouring foodstuff'.

A colouring foodstuff is an ingredient, not an additive. It doesn't need an E-number and its function within the food doesn't need to be defined on the label. It should be something that people might normally expect to eat (for instance, spirulina is consumed as a supplement) and it can be simply processed, but the colour should not have been selectively extracted. Examples include using spinach purée as opposed to the chlorophyll (E140) purified from spinach, or powdered turmeric rather than curcumin (E100).

In the case of spirulina, the blue pigment is water soluble, so the argument is that the extraction process is like making tea out of it, which is a normal cooking process. However, there are three pigments in spirulina (which is a combination of blue-green cyanobacteria) and some observers reason that selectively extracting the blue colour in this way effectively turns it from a colouring foodstuff into an additive, which should be then subject to the same safety testing, purity and traceability requirements as all the EU-approved additives. There's no suggestion that there is any evidence of a health issue with spirulina or the other colouring foodstuffs on the market, but they are not subject to the same safety testing as additives, which is something that most consumers are unaware of.

It can take between two and four years for a new additive to gain admission to the EU list and it's certainly not cheap to gather the necessary supporting evidence. However, according to industry insiders, there are rumblings inside the European Commission about the need to clear up the grey area between colouring foodstuffs and additives. "In some cases, the legal position of these colouring foodstuffs is ambiguous and needs clarification," says consultant and regulatory specialist Neville Craddock.

Key Contacts

Chr Hansen UK 01488 689800

EFSA 00 39 0521 036111

Kalsec 01638 715011

Overseal Natural Ingredients 01283 224221

Sensient Food Colors UK 01553 669444

Wild Flavors 001 859 342 3600

Related topics: Flavours and colours

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