Is food coloring biodegradable? (5 needs for food coloring)

This article shall answer the question, ” is food coloring biodegradable?”. 

It shall also cover other areas such as:

  • Toxicity of food coloring.
  • Types of food coloring.
  • Need for food coloring.
  • Classification of food coloring.

Is food coloring biodegradable?

Yes, food coloring made from organic plant products is biodegradable while food coloring made from synthetic crude oil products is not biodegradable.

There are different types of food coloring, depending on the material from which they are made.

Biodegradation is the process by which naturally occurring organic materials are broken down by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi into small particles which are not harmful to the environment.

Biodegradation is carried out by different agents such as UV radiation, light, wind, and water but the most effective agents of biodegradation are bacteria and fungi.

Biodegradation occurs in three distinct stages: biodeterioration, bio-fragmentation, and assimilation.

The biodeterioration process loosens up the structure of the organic substance. For instance, the cell wall of plants is weakened by light, wind, water, and UV radiation.

Bio-fragmentation involves the breakdown of organic matter into smaller, nontoxic particles by bacteria and fungi, releasing water and carbon dioxide in the process.

Assimilation is the last stage of biodegradation and it involves the microorganisms taking up the products of bio-fragmentation into their biological machinery to be used to make energy.

Biodegradation can either involve the microorganisms using oxygen, aerobic biodegradation or it can involve the microorganisms which do not use oxygen, anaerobic biodegradation.

Aerobic biodegradation breaks down organic matter into small biomass, producing carbon dioxide and water.

Anaerobic biodegradation breaks down organic matter into small biomass and in the process carbon dioxide and methane gases are produced.

Aerobic biodegradation occurs at a faster rate than anaerobic biodegradation whereas anaerobic respiration is more efficient and produces more gases and other products.

What is food coloring?

Food coloring is a substance that is added to food to make them look more attractive and for ease of differentiating two similar products like beverages.

Food coloring is a topic of controversy. Some believe that food coloring is harmful to the food, the consumer, and the environment. 

There is another lot that believes it is safe to use food coloring.

Food coloring is also used in other fields such as cosmetics, medicines, and personal care products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has evaluated food coloring and concluded that it is safe to use in different products.

Food coloring occurs in a wide range of colors including red, blue, yellow, green, white, orange, and purple. The choice of food coloring depends on the person.

The food coloring is mostly derived from metals used acquired from crude oil and its products. Some natural sources of food coloring such as berries, vanilla, and paprika are also used.

Food coloring dyes come in different forms. They can be found as gels, powder, pastes, and liquids.

What is the reason for food coloring?

There are different reasons why people use food coloring dyes in their products. 

People have customized their brains to associate certain colors with certain flavors, but the reasons for coloring food are more than just flavor.

The various reasons include:

  • To enhance the look of the food, making it more attractive, appetizing, and appealing.
  • To improve the color lost when food is exposed to light, air, extreme temperatures, and moisture.
  • To correct the natural variations in the color of products.
  • To improve the naturally occurring colors 
  • To provide color to colorless food.
  • To help consumers identify their products at ease.

What are the types of food coloring dyes?

Different types of coloring dyes produce different colors. 

These coloring pigments are divided into:

  • Natural dyes.
  • Synthetic dyes.

Natural coloring dyes.

These are coloring pigments that are produced by plants. The natural pigments are biodegradable and therefore safer for the environment.

They include:


These pigments are also called tetraterpenoids. They occur in yellow, red, and orange colors.

Carotenoids are produced by plants, algae, and several bacteria and fungi. They give colors to carrots, salmon, shrimp, lobster, parsnips, pumpkins, corn, and tomatoes.

Carotenoids can also be produced by aphids and spider mites.

Carotenoids are subdivided into two classes: xanthophylls( oxygen-containing carotenoids) and carotenes ( which are hydrocarbons; containing carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms)

Carotenoids are all tetraterpenes; they contain 8  isoprene molecules. Carotenoids absorb light in the wavelength of 400-550nm; the violet and green light region.

Carotenoids absorb light for photosynthesis and also they protect the plants from harmful light radiations.


This is a group of pigments that are derived from chlorophyll pigment. They are water-soluble. 

Chlorophyllin is water-soluble. It helps the plant by binding to environmental mutagens such as acridine orange, benzo[a]pyrene, and dibenzo[a, i] pyrene.


These are water-soluble pigments that contain the colors red, purple, blue, or black.

Anthocyanins are abundant pigments in plant flowers. Anthocyanins belong to a class of flavonoids. They are produced by almost every tissue of plants.

Examples of anthocyanins include pelargonidin, cyanidin, delphinidin, malvidin, petunidin, and peonidin.


This is a red pigment obtained from beets. It is also called beetroot red.

The betanin color depends on the pH. It can be bluish-red at low pH and becomes blue-violet as the pH increases. Alkaline pH degrades into yellow-brown color.

It is a betalain pigment, found in this group together with betanin, probetanin, and neobetanin.  

Betanins are used in coloring ice creams and soft drink beverages.

Synthetic food dyes.

These are food coloring dyes produced from petroleum products.

Synthetic rubbers have divided opinions on their safety for quite some time now. Some dyes have already been banned in some nations.

Synthetic dyes such as Red 40 are associated with cancer, yellow 3 dye has been associated with allergies in people sensitive to aspirin.

Yellow 3 dye, according to sources, was found to create a risk of thyroid tumor/cancer in mice.

Synthetic dyes are believed to be causing skin irritation and eczema.

Also, synthetic pigments are said to interfere with the composition of food because of their chemical properties.

The following are some of the types of synthetic food dyes: 

  • Quinoline yellow for quinoline yellow color.
  • Carmoisine for red to maroon color in beverages and ice cream. 
  • Tartrazine for the lemon yellow color in desserts, candies, and soft drinks.
  • Erythrosine for pink and reddish-pink color in candies, popsicles, and cake decorating geld.
  • Sunset Yellow FCF for green 3.
  • Indigo carmine for blue 2.
  • Brilliant blue for blue 1.
  • Black PN for black 1
  • Patent blue B for blue 5.
  • Green S for green 4.
  • Red 2G for red 10.
  • Azorubine.
  • Amaranth for red 9.
  • Ponceau 4R for red 18.
  • Allura red for red 17.
  • Brilliant black.
  • Brown HT for brown 3.
  • Lithol Rubine.
  • Fast green.
  • Indigotine.

Some synthetic food dyes have been banned from use in different countries. They include the following:

  • Blue 1 which is found in candies and soft drinks has been banned in Norway, France, and Finland.
  • Yellow 5 is banned in Norway and Austria because it contains benzidine and 4- aminobiphenyl.
  • Yellow 6 is banned in Norway and Finland.
  • Red 40 is banned in the UK from the use by children.
  • Quinoline yellow, yellow 2g, azorubine carmoisine, ponceau 4R, patent blue v, vegetable carbon, brown FK, Brown HT, and black PN have all been banned in the USA.

Is food coloring toxic?

Well, having looked at the different types of food coloring dyes, it is clear that some dyes are toxic to humans.

The synthetic dyes are derived from petroleum products and some pose a real danger to humans.

Synthetic dyes such as Red 40 are associated with cancer, yellow 3 dye has been associated with allergies in people sensitive to aspirin.

Yellow 3 dye, according to sources, was found to create a risk of thyroid tumor/cancer in mice.

Synthetic dyes are believed to be causing skin irritation and eczema.

Some synthetic dyes have been banned in different countries due to various reasons, so it is worth checking the rating of a dye before using it.


This article has answered the question of the biodegradability of food coloring dyes.

It has also covered other areas that include:

  • Categories of dyes.
  • Types of dyes in each category.
  • The toxicity of some food coloring dyes.
  • The biodegradation process.

For any questions or comments please use the comment section below.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): is food coloring biodegradable?

Is food dyes biodegradable?

This depends on the source of the dye, synthetic dyes derived from petroleum products are non-biodegradable while organic dyes derived from plants, algae, fungi, and some bacteria are biodegradable.

Is food coloring all-natural?

No, food coloring dyes are divided into two categories, natural and synthetic. Natural dyes are found naturally in plants and fungi while synthetic dyes are synthesized from petroleum products.

Is food coloring plant-based?

Yes, there are types of dyes that are obtained from plants and are called natural dyes, others are obtained from petroleum products and are called synthetic dyes.

Only carmine red is obtained from animals and bugs.


Susanna Kim. (June 26, 2013). 11 Food Ingredients Banned Outside the U.S. What We Eat: Some experts say there’s no reason to worry if you eat these foods.

Retrieved from:

Kathleen. (November 5, 2021). Is food coloring biodegradable?

Retrieved from:

Walford, J. (1980). “Historical Development of Food Colouration”. Developments in Food Colours. London: Applied Science Publishers. 1: 1–25.