2010-2011 Food Colours in Selected Foods

Executive Summary

The Food Safety Action Plan (FSAP) aims to modernize and enhance Canada's food safety system. As a part of the FSAP enhanced surveillance initiative, targeted surveys are used to test various foods for specific hazards.

The main objectives of the targeted survey on food colours in selected foods were to:

  • establish baseline data regarding the actual use levels of permitted synthetic food colours in selected foods on the Canadian retail market, and
  • obtain information regarding the presence of non-permitted food colours in a variety of foods.

Food colours, both naturally-sourced and synthetically manufactured, are widely used by the food industry. They are considered food additives, and 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 more appealing and appetizing. However, advances in technology have revealed the unexpected presence of non-permitted industrial dyes in some foods. The presence of non-permitted food colours may pose a health risk to the consumer, as some are potentially damaging to DNA and carcinogenic.

International media reports of imported foods containing non-permitted food colours and dyes (such as the industrial dyes Sudan Red, Rhodamine B, Monascus, or Gardenia Yellow) have raised the profile of this issue.

The use of permitted synthetic food colours may also be a potential health concern for a small percentage of the population who have exhibited sensitivity to synthetic food colours resulting in rash, flushing, asthma, dizziness and fainting. Additionally, several studies have suggested a correlation between consumption of food colour mixes and hyperactive behaviour in children, although this relationship has not been conclusively proven.

One thousand five hundred and forty-six samples of both domestic and imported origin were collected from retail stores in eight cities across Canada. Samples were targeted to those likely to contain non-permitted colours and dyes, including palm oils, red Asian/chili spices, and products plausibly containing these spices. In addition, commodities known to contain or noted in the CFIA's previous FSAP Food Colours 2009-2010 targeted survey as having high levels of food colours were targeted including beverages, candy, savoury sauces, spices, and sweets. Samples were analysed for up to 211 different food colours.

Nine hundred and ninety of the 1546 samples (64%) did not have detectable levels of food colours. Four hundred and ninety-eight samples contained detectable food colours in compliance with the Food and Drug Regulations, which specifically outlines the food colours which are permitted in food in Canada and their maximum levels. Overall, the compliance rate in this targeted survey was 96.2%.

Fifty-eight samples were in violation of Canadian food colour additive regulations, with a total of 61 violations (three samples had two distinct violations each). Sweets contained the highest percentage of samples with food colour violations at 5.9%, followed by candy at 4.7%, spices at 3.6%, savoury sauces at 3.0%, palm oils at 2.0%, and beverages at 1.9%. Detectable levels of food colour(s) were found in all product types sampled.

Instances of elevated levels of permitted food colour and the presence of non-permitted colour in this survey were evaluated by Health Canada on a case-by-case basis as necessary. Appropriate follow-up action by the CFIA was pursued. Two different imported products (curry powder and palm oil) were the subject of Class 2 product recalls from retail in Canada in May 2011, based on a human health risk assessment conducted by Health Canada. Exposure to food colour additives in the remaining palm oils, beverages, candy, savoury sauces, spices, and sweets samples were not expected to pose a human health concern to Canadian consumers.

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