The next time you see a Ghostbusters wedding cake, stop and wonder just how they got the radioactive green coloring for the ectoplasmic slime. It's worth asking — because history is full of really icky substances being used for food colorings. You probably know already about the beetle that is still crushed to make red food dye.
But you might not know about some of the food colorings the ancient world used, that were even grosser. And sometimes, actually poisonous.
The cochineal insect was once responsible for nearly every edible red in America. About 70,000 of these South American insects were ground up to make a pound of dye that would make lollipops, gelatin, and the red on apples more inviting. Although the overall use of the dye was curtailed, it's still occasionally used. Many of us still eat bug candy. We're not the first civilization to use disgusting ingredients because they make things look pretty. Throughout history we find people putting a little beauty into their food in ugly ways.
The first people to tell us in written records what they, and everyone else, were dishing up were the Romans. Roman and Egyptian feasts were famous for their exoticism and beauty (rather than their taste), and so it's no wonder that they dyed their food yellow with saffron, a spice that's worth more by weight than gold even today. The Phoenicians and the Romans dyed their food purple with the excretions of the mucus glands of sea snails. (The dye was called Tyrian Purple and no substitute was found for it right up until the 1850s.) They put alum - now used in water purification and antiperspirants - in their bread to make it whiter. They also dyed their wine with juice, or even henna. These dyes did double duty when unscrupulous merchants watered down the wine, which many Romans complained about.
A thousand years later, medieval bakers kept mum about their tendency to supply the rich with bright white flower by adding chalk or ground up bones to their meal, but the resulting bread was so bad for people that it lead to the first known law against certain food additives. The law is from the thirteenth century and reads, in part, "If any default shall be found in the bread of a baker in the city, the ﬁrst time, let him be drawn upon a hurdle from the Guildhall to his own house through the great street where there be most people assembled, and through the streets which are most dirty, with the faulty loaf hanging from his neck." A third strike would get the baker to the pillory. The third would cause the destruction of the bakery and the expulsion from town of the baker.
It was in Victorian age Europe that food coloration hit its stride, and it was not a pretty thing. Copper salts were used to turn pickles and preserved vegetables an inviting shade of green. Iron compounds made red sauce redder. Across the ocean, China's tea industry noticed European people bought more green tea if it was really green, and put a dye called Prussian Blue (which contains arsenic) and yellow gypsum into their teas to make the colors brighter. But candy, the bright stuff that appealed to young children, was where the worst dyes came in. Mercury was part of vermilion dye. White and red lead were used to make candies yellow and pink. Copper and arsenic were used to make candies blue and green. Not surprisingly, articles were published and laws were passed, but it was only when coal tar dyes - which were made from organic ingredients instead of minerals - became cheaper than outright toxic dyes that the practice stopped.
Over time, certain versions of those dyes proved to not be as harmless as previously expected. In 1955, when several children got sick after eating candy dyed with Orange #1, Orange #2, and Red #32, the dyes were sent into labs for testing and shown to cause severe health problems in animals. They were taken off the market, but this revelation began to revitalize the public's interest in all-natural foods..
A walk down the candy aisle shows that a lot of dyes are still out there.. Overall, people have labored to get dye out of food, but only found legal grounds in two cases: if the dye was actively harmful, or if the dye "conceals damage or inferiority." These have been the guidelines used since the 1600s, when it was declared illegal for either butter to be tinted a deeper yellow or pastries to be dyed yellow in order for it to look like they were made with eggs. Anything that makes people think they're buying better than what they get is out. Looked at in that way, dyes are a way of admitting the product is crap and everyone knows it. No one expects a red lollipop or a blue sports drink to taste like anything except red and blue dye with sugar. Red and blue dye is just what they get. At least it no longer has lead and copper in it.
Sea Snail Dinner Image: Roy Rogoyski/Flickr.
Nonpareil Image: Deb