Food Colours in Essences/Flavourings, Oils, Sweets and Processed Vegetables – April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019
Food chemistry - Targeted surveys - Final report
Food Colours in Essences/Flavourings, Oils, Sweets and Processed Vegetables – April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019 (PDF - 703 kb)
Targeted surveys provide information on potential food hazards and enhance the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's (CFIA's) routine monitoring programs. These surveys provide evidence regarding the safety of the food supply, identify potential emerging hazards, and contribute new information and data to food categories where it may be limited or non-existent. They are often used by the agency to focus surveillance on potential areas of higher risk. Surveys can also help to identify trends and provide information about how industry complies with Canadian regulations.
Food colours are routinely added to foods and beverages for a variety of reasons, including to compensate for the loss of natural colour caused by processing conditions, and to meet consumer expectations by making the food more appealing and appetizing by enhancing the colour or making it more uniform. Targeted surveys focusing on colouring agents have been initiated in part due to potential health concerns associated with uses of non-permitted colouring agents in processed foods. The presence of non-permitted colouring agents may pose a health risk to the consumer, as some are potentially damaging to DNA and carcinogenicFootnote 1,Footnote 2. Undeclared use of permitted synthetic colouring agents may also be a potential concern to a small percentage of the population which has exhibited sensitivity to synthetic colouring agents, resulting in skin rashes and triggering asthmatic reactions in individuals with asthmaFootnote 3,Footnote 4.
This targeted survey generated further baseline surveillance data on the occurrence of food colours in domestic and imported products on the Canadian market. A total of 399 samples of essences/flavourings, oils, sweets, and processed vegetables were collected and tested for up to 43 different food colour additives. Artificial food colours were not detected in 218 (55%) of the samples tested. Food colours at levels exceeding the maximum level of use were detected in 3 of the samples. A non-permitted food colour was found in 1 sample, and only 1 sample contained permitted food colours/levels without a declaration of use in the list of ingredients. When compared to previous survey years, these results show a similar detection rate and compliance (98.7%) rate.
The levels of food colours observed in this survey were evaluated by Health Canada (HC) who determined that none of the samples would pose an unacceptable human health concern, therefore there were no recalls resulting from this survey.
What are targeted surveys
Targeted surveys are used by the CFIA to focus its surveillance activities on areas of highest health risk. The information gained from these surveys provides support for the allocation and prioritization of the agency's activities to areas of greater concern. Originally started as a project under the Food Safety Action Plan (FSAP), targeted surveys have been embedded in our regular surveillance activities since 2013. Targeted surveys are a valuable tool for generating information on certain hazards in foods, identifying and characterizing new and emerging hazards, informing trend analysis, prompting and refining health risk assessments, highlighting potential contamination issues, as well as assessing and promoting compliance with Canadian regulations.
Food safety is a shared responsibility. We work with federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments and provide regulatory oversight of the food industry to promote safe handling of foods throughout the food production chain. The food industry and retail sectors in Canada are responsible for the food they produce and sell, while individual consumers are responsible for the safe handling of the food they have in their possession.
Why did we conduct this survey
Food colours, both naturally-sourced and synthetically manufactured, are widely used by the food industry. They are incorporated into processed foods for a variety of reasons including:
- to compensate for the natural colour(s) lost during processing;
- to achieve a uniform product colour; and,
- to make the food appear more appealing and appetizing.
In Canada, food colours are considered food additives and are regulated under Marketing Authorizations issued by the Minister of Health. HC conducts detailed, rigorous, safety-focused pre-market evaluations of food additives prior to allowing their use in foods and setting the maximum allowable levels of use of those coloursFootnote 5,Footnote 6. It should be noted that coloured impurities other than the main colour (called subsidiary colours) are not regulated within food products, but are regulated as part of the food colour raw material source. In Canada, 10 synthetic colours have been approved for use in food, and are listed in the Food and Drug Regulations (FDR). The presence of 1 or more approved colours in food is not unexpected. Declaration of individual colours by the manufacturers was voluntary when the survey was carried out. However, HC recently amended the food colour labelling requirements that require colouring agents to be identified on labels by their common name in order to make more information available to consumers when making food selectionsFootnote 7.
The presence of non-permitted food colours, particularly industrial dyes, may pose a health risk to the consumer, as some are potentially damaging to DNA and carcinogenicFootnote 1,Footnote 2. Undeclared use of permitted synthetic colouring agents may also be a potential concern to a small percentage of the population which has exhibited sensitivity to synthetic colouring agents, resulting in skin rashes and triggering asthmatic reactions in individuals with asthmaFootnote 3,Footnote 4. Furthermore, several studies have suggested a correlation between consumption of certain synthetic food colours and hyperactive behaviour in children, although this relationship has not been conclusively provenFootnote 8,Footnote 9. Despite the lack of a clear link, anecdotal information suggests that certain consumers are cautious about the use of synthetic food colour additives, primarily for health and safety reasons. With trends toward healthier lifestyles, the food industry is noting that consumers are demanding fewer artificial or synthetic ingredients in foodsFootnote 10. Targeted surveys focused on colouring agents have been carried out previously and will continue to generate further baseline data.
What did we sample
A variety of domestic and imported essences/flavourings, oils, sweets (baked goods, candy, fruit snacks, preserves and pudding), and processed vegetables (pickled asparagus, beans, beets, cucumbers, onions, peppers and turnips) were sampled between April 1, 2018 and March 31, 2019. Samples of products were collected from local/regional retail locations located in 6 major cities across Canada. These cities encompassed 4 Canadian geographical areas: Atlantic (Halifax), Quebec (Montreal), Ontario (Toronto, Ottawa) and the West (Vancouver, and Calgary). The number of samples collected from these cities was in proportion to the relative population of the respective areas.
|Product type||Number of domestic samples||Number of imported samples||Number of samples of unspecified Table Note a origin||Total number of samples|
- Table Note a
Unspecified refers to those samples for which the country of origin could not be assigned from the product label or available sample information.
What analytical methods were used and how were samples assessed
Samples were analyzed by an ISO/IEC 17025 accredited food testing laboratory under contract with the Government of Canada. Based on the nature of the food product, samples were analyzed for water-soluble colours, oil-dispersible colours, or both. See Appendix A for a list of the colours analyzed. The results represent finished food products as sold and not as they would be consumed, whether the product sampled is considered an ingredient or requires preparation prior to consumption.
What were the survey results
Of the 399 food samples tested, artificial food colours were not detected in 219 (55%) of the samples. Most of these samples (98%) contained between 1 and 4 colours. Table 2 summarizes food colours detected and their prevalence in each product type. Sweets had the highest percentage of samples containing 1 or more food colours at 66%, followed by processed vegetables (56%). Food colors were detected in only 13% of oil samples tested. The highest food colour levels were associated with soft and hard candy. Overall, 5 samples were non-compliant with Canadian food regulations. Food colours exceeding the maximum level of use were detected in 3 of these samples. A non-permitted food colour was found in 1 sample, and only 1 sample contained permitted food colours/levels but no declaration of use was made in the list of ingredients.
As shown in Table 3, the most commonly detected food colours in the survey were Allura Red, Tartrazine, Brilliant Blue FCF, and Sunset Yellow FCF. These accounted for 91% of positive results. They were the most commonly detected in all survey years.
|Commodity||Number of samples||Number of samples with food colours detected (%)||Number of times food colours were detected||Number of non-compliant samples (number of non-compliant results)|
|Processed vegetables||50||28 (56)||40||2 (2)|
|Sweets||200||131 (66)||260||3 (3)|
|Grand total||399||181 (45)||336||5 (5)|
|Colouring agent detected in survey samples (permitted colours in bold)||Number of samples in which colour was detected Table Note b||Maximum level detected (ppm)||Average level detected (ppm)|
|Brilliant Blue FCF||61||85||9.5|
|Sunset Yellow FCF||44||98.6||20.5|
|Orange II Table Note c||2||0.221||<LQ=0.13|
<LQ = Below the limit of quantification (above limit of detection)
What do the survey results mean
The main objectives of this targeted survey were to expand upon baseline data regarding the levels of permitted synthetic food colours in selected foods on the Canadian retail market and to obtain information regarding the presence of non-permitted food colours in a variety of foods. Out of a total of 399 samples tested, 394 (98.7%) samples were in compliance with Canadian standards and limits. Table 4 summarizes 5 years of past targeted survey data for food colours. Despite some disparity in products sampled across the surveys years, the compliance rate in 2018 to 2019 was similar to previous survey yearsFootnote 11,Footnote 12,Footnote 13,Footnote 14,Footnote 15,Footnote 16. In general, the same types of non-compliant results found in the current survey were found in previous surveys. The detection rates are in close agreement with the results of previous surveys when compared with similar product types. It should be re-iterated that samples were selected due to their high likelihood of containing food colouring agents, and that prevalence in the food categories selected are not necessarily representative of the prevalence of synthetic food colours in all foodstuffs available at retail.
|Survey year||Number of samples||Detection rate (%)||Compliance rate (%)||Number of non-compliant samples (number of non-compliant results)|
|2018 to 2019||399||45||98.7||5 (5)|
|2014 to 2015||980||15||98.9||11 (25)|
|2013 to 2014||875||33||97.8||19 (22)|
|2012 to 2013||1493||58||97.6||36 (38)|
|2011 to 2012||1799||29||97.8||39 (41)|
|2010 to 2011||1546||36||96.2||58 (61)|
The levels of food colours observed in this survey were evaluated by HC who determined that none of the samples would pose an unacceptable human health concern, therefore there were no recalls resulting from this survey.
List of colours tested by the accredited laboratory in this survey (permitted colours in bold)
- Indigo Carmine (Indigotine)
- Sunset Yellow FCF
- Allura Red
- Ponceau SX
- Fast Green FCF
- Brillant Blue FCF
- Erythrosin B
- Ponceau 4R (New Coccine)†
- Fast Red E†
- Bordeaux R†
- Erythrosin Yellowish (2,4,5- triiodofluorescein)†
- Crocein Orange G†
- Orange II†
- Orange GGN
- Azorubine (Carmoisine)
- Lissamine Green
- Quinoline Yellow 1
- Eosin Y
- Patent Blue VF
- Patent Blue Violet Calcium
- Chrysoidine G
- Rhodamine B
- Sudan I
- Sudan II
- Sudan III
- Sudan IV
- Sudan Red B
- Sudan Red 7B
- Sudan Red G
- Sudan Orange G
- Sudan Blue II
- Solvent Blue 59
- Toluidine Red
- Para Red
- Methyl Yellow
- Metanil Yellow*
- Orange II*
- Rhodamine B*
- Sudan Black B
- Citrus Red
†May be present as a subsidiary food colour
*Water-soluble fat-soluble colours
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