An edible color palette

An editable color palette (Photo and some cupcakes by Skylar Challand for Jessi Arrington’s Rainbow Birthday 2011)

As designers, we know color is important. But when food is your medium, color can be powerful enough to influence taste—and affect health.

Say hello to Blue No. 1, Yellow No. 5, and Red No. 40.

These numbers make up part of an artificial color palette approved by the United States’ Food and Drug Administration. First introduced in 1906, the FDA’s Pure Food and Drug Act (and later the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act) was put in place to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of food products. Before this, more than eighty dyes were used to color food, without regulation—the same dye could be used to color both clothing and candy.

Currently, the FD&C color palette features seven colors that can be used in the production of food, along with two additional colors for limited use.

In the European Union, a similar system is in place for assessing food additives (both artificial and natural), denoted by E numbers. But for the purpose of this article, we’ll stick to the FD&C numbers.

Artificial dyes have been used to color food for decades, giving us the unnaturally neon food we’ve grown to love. Without them, soft drinks would be clear, Cheetos would be beige, Froot Loops would just be Cheerios, and Easter eggs wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

While it may not come as a surprise that Cheetos are not naturally dayglo-orange (or naturally anything, for that matter), its color may be more important than we think. As revealed in a recent New York Times article, taste testers at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab who sampled a Yellow No. 6-less version of the snack were left feeling unsatisfied.

Their fingers did not turn orange. And their brains did not register much cheese flavor, even though the Cheetos tasted just as they did with food coloring.

“People ranked the taste as bland and said that they weren’t much fun to eat,” says Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell. Of course, it couldn’t help that naked Cheetos appear as an unappetizing off-white—or as the New York Times describes, “like shriveled larvae of a large insect.”

Besides making our food colorful, these artificial dyes—made up of tar derivatives, long-chain hydrocarbons, and other petrochemicals—have been linked to hyperactivity in children (although the FDA says evidence is inconclusive), and have even been tested to cure spinal injuries in lab rats.

So what exactly are they?

The primary colors

FD&C Blue No. 1

Typical of modern dyes, Blue No. 1 was originally derived from coal tar. Today, most manufacturers produce it synthetically from an oil base. Also known as “Brilliant Blue FCF,” it is used to color products like Gatorade, soft drinks, candy, and mouthwash. Along with Yellow No. 5 and Red No. 40, it is one of the most commonly used colors, and can be combined with Yellow No. 5 to create various shades of green. In 2003, The FDA warned of several reports of toxicity associated with its use, including death.

FD&C Blue No. 2

This royal blue dye is a synthetic version of the plant-based indigo, the same colorant used to dye blue jeans. It can be found in soft drinks, candy such as M&Ms, frozen deserts, breakfast cereals, and bakery products. It is use medical dyes, surgical sutures, and for testing milk. The World Health Organization gives Blue No. 2 a toxicology rating of B: Available data not entirely sufficient to meet requirements acceptable for food use.

FD&C Green No. 3

Like many of the other current FD&C colors, Green No. 3 was created as a replacement for another dye that was delisted after health concerns (replacing Green No. 2 in this case). Green No. 3, or “Fast Green FCF,” is used in products like canned peas, candy, fish, and vegetables. The dye is not permitted in the European Union due to animal studies which showed it to be a possible carcinogen.

FD&C Yellow No. 5

Derived from coal tar, Tartrazine is a lemon yellow azo dye. It is one of the most widely used additives, found in products like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Mountain Dew, Doritos, breakfast cereals, candy, chewing gum, jam, pickles, yogurt, vitamins, and prescription drugs. The dye is banned in Norway and the Britain’s Foods Standard Agency has called for a voluntary phase-out of its use in foods due to links to hyperactivity in children.

FD&C Yellow No. 6 (Photo: mjm, Flickr)

As the name suggests, Sunset Yellow is a reddish yellow coloring. Like Yellow No. 5, it is derived from coal tar, and its effects on health have been questioned. It is banned in Norway and Finland, and was included in the UK’s push for voluntary phase-out. It can be found in orange soda, hot chocolate mix, breakfast cereal, and candy like Reese’s Pieces.

FD&C Red No. 3

Red No. 3, also known by its chemical name Erythrosine, is a cherry-pink dye used to color products like maraschino cherries, pistachios, canned fruit, candy, popsicles, cake decorating gels, and toothpaste. It is also used in printing inks, as a biological stain, a dental plaque disclosing agent, and in X-rays. In 1990, the U.S. FDA placed a partial ban on Red No. 3 after research showed high doses could cause cancer in rats.

FD&C Red No. 40

Allura Red is the newest color of the bunch, approved in 1971, and was introduced to replace the banned Red No. 4. Despite the popular misconception, Red No. 40 is not derived from insects (that would be carmine). This azo dye was originally manufactured from coal tar, but is now mostly made from petroleum. It is banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Sweden. It was also included in UK’s voluntary phase-out in 2009, due to hyperactivity in children. Red No. 40 can be found in sweets like Twizzlers, soft drinks, condiments, and cosmetics.


Limited use colors

FD&C Orange B

Derived from coal tar, Orange B is limited for use only in hot dog and sausage casings. In 1978, the FDA announced its use could result in exposure to beta-naphthylamine, a known cancer-causing additive. Beta-naphthylamine is listed on the Center for Disease Control’s Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards.

FD&C Citrus Red No. 2

An azo dye approved for use only in coloring citrus peels. The dye is used in Florida to mask color variations with oranges and tangerines throughout the seasons (it is not used in California). According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, studies have shown health problems including cancer from heavy ingestion and from exposure to the skin.


According to Gatorade’s website, artificial colors are added to its products to “help in flavor perception and enable you to tell different flavors apart.” They also are quick to point out, “All colors and ingredients in Gatorade qualify for human consumption according to the requirements of the FDA, added at the lowest possible level to achieve the desired color.”

Some grocery stores, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, have put an outright ban on artificially colored foods.

Not all food coloring is as scary as the FD&C color palette, however. Cola gets its color from caramelized sugar (although that’s been recently scrutinized too), cheddar cheese gets its orange color from annatto and paprika, and some modern brands are turning to natural options like turmeric or beets for color.

Other brands have recently decided to do away with color completely in some of their products, including Kraft’s Kool-Aid Invisible and Organic White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese.

If it wasn’t evident before, food has shown us the power of color goes much beyond what’s visible.

Invisible snack, anyone?

USPS Puts Wrong Statue Of Liberty On Stamp, Doesn't Really Give A F*&k

You almost have to respect the USPS for screwing up this royally. First, they go and put the wrong Statue of Liberty on a postage stamp. Then, when told about it, they just shrug it off like a postal worker eating a sandwich at their closed window while a line of customers waits.

First, the Lady Liberty goof. Look closely at the statue on the stamp seen here. Sure, it looks like the statue rising out of the water just off the coast of New Jersey. But it ain’t. It’s the replica statue from the New York-New York casino in Las Vegas.

Then there’s the response from the USPS, which says it picked the image from a stock photo service. “We still love the stamp design and would have selected this photograph anyway,” a rep for the near-bankrupt relic tells the NY Times.

Stay classy USPS.

This Lady Liberty Is a Las Vegas Teenager [NY Times]

Five Great Cyberpunk Novels Tron Should Inspire You to Read (GeekDad Weekly Rewind)

It’s not as though Tron (1982) invented virtual reality or cyberspace — the idea of humans entering into an immersive computer generated environment was around way before Flynn and his cohorts ran the grid in their light cycles. Philip K. Dick had something like it in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep with the Empathy Machine and even Doctor Who had VR in the 1976 episode “The Deadly Assassin,” where the good Doctor enters the Time Lords’ ultimate computer — called the Matrix (look it up) — to do battle in a virtual world controlled by his arch-nemesis The Master.

What Tron did was bring the idea of virtual reality much closer to the popular conscience, making the thought of going into the computer seem plausible. Tron was initially only mildly successful, but — unlike Disney’s previous attempt at sci-fi, The Black Hole — quickly developed a cult following. There’s no way of telling exactly the effect the movie had on the the burgeoning cyberpunk literary movement that blossomed in the 1980s, but there can be little doubt that everyone in the sci-fi sub-genre saw the movie or at least played the video games based on it.

With yesterday’s release of the sequel Tron: Legacy on a variety of digital media, we also finally get the original movie back, absent from our shelves for many years. The rumor goes that Disney didn’t want to re-release it in advance of the sequel because they were worried kids would be turned off by the primitive special effects of the original and it would hurt Legacy at the box-office. Whatever. I know my son (who saw the sequel with me) and I can’t wait to see both of them (yes, I liked Tron: Legacy, despite its shortcomings).

Tron may not have invented virtual reality, but I remember being thrilled as a young teen in the early 1980s by the concept of being digital that it presented. It was those ideas of becoming one with the machine that I sought out in the books I read after that.

For your consideration — five of the top cyberpunk books that feature virtual reality. Tron may or may not have inspired the authors to write them, but I know the movie inspired me to read them.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

Style of VR: Jack your skull straight into cyberspace.

First book of The Sprawl Trilogy (3 novels and one book of short stories), Neuromancer is possibly the most important work in the Cyberpunk cannon. Based in an eroded American future, it is the story of Case — a burned out cyberjockey, and Molly, a bad-ass cybernetically enhanced bodyguard/assassin/courier as they disinterestedly try to save the world from a megalomaniacal AI computer in cyberspace. The computer wins. But that’s actually a good thing.

Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams (1986)

Style of VR: Better driving through plugging your eyes directly into the vehicle.

Imagine a world where the whole Red State/Blue State thing is not just a political division in North America, but the governmental break down. Yes, Walter Jon Williams shows us a future where there is no US any more, and everywhere is a no fly zone. To run supplies (and bootleg) across the “heartland,” smugglers resort to jacking straight into their vehicles and becoming one with their cars.

Ghost in The Shell by Masamune Shirow (1989)

Style of VR: Everyone is just a node in the net now.

[Read the rest of Jason Cranford Teague’s excellent article, published on Wednesday, and please leave any comments you may have on the original.]

‘You Don’t Know Jack’ Heading To iPad and iPhone

If Jeopardy [$4.99 / HD] and Trivial Pursuit [$.99] got together after a drunken night spent staring at YouTube football-in-the-crotch videos, popular culture rags, and irreverent comedy routines, the fruits of that night of passion and drunken perusing of media would be You Don’t Know Jack, one of the most irreverent and entertaining quiz show games ever. And for the first time, it’s poised to grace iOS devices — though, the question of “when” still remains.

Date and actual hands-on time with it aside, YDKJ iOS has the appearance of being a faithful port of the latest rash of games. In the press release announcing this momentous occasion, the PR firm notes that these particular versions will launch with 20 full episodes (10 questions each) and all those interesting bits and pieces of side content, like the “DisOrDat,” the “Jack Attack,” and even “Who’s the Dummy?” Neat!

We're hoping to get our hands on a preview build of the game in the not too distant future, at which point we also hope to report back on You Don't Know Jack for iOS being as awesome as we hope it will be. Yeah, that's an awful lot of hoping, but I have faith in Jack.

Kid Discovers the Best Way to Come Down the Stairs (GeekDad VOTD)

Watch in awe at how this cute kid will let nothing stand between him and his bottle, not even a full flight of stairs.

Nothing particularly geeky about that, you might say; kids do stuff like this all the time. The fun starts when the interweb’s video remixers get a hold of it and stick it in reverse. Now, marvel as Superbaby hands off his bottle to his trusty sidekick and flies off to save the world from an unknown terror! All it needs is a heroic soundtrack.

(found via @glinner, and TheNumberSixtySix)

Why Is Michigan So Generous With Bottle Deposits?

The classic Seinfeld episode “The Bottle Deposit” will be 15 years old in May. In honor of Kramer and Newman’s ill-fated trip to Michigan in a mail truck full of bottles and cans they hoped to redeem for dimes, let’s take a look at why Michigan’s bottle deposit is so high.

How long has Michigan had the dime deposit?

The 10-cent deposit traces its roots back to the Michigan Beverage Containers Law of 1976. Here’s how it works: the consumer pays an additional dime up front, which will be refunded when the can or bottle is returned. The rule aims to curb litter, encourage recycling, and provide funding for environmental programs.

Does the higher deposit prompt more recycling?

A five-cent difference may sound trifling, but the higher deposit helps make Michigan’s recycling program wildly successful. Although it’s tough to track fraudulent cans and bottles that come in from outside the state, the Michigan program has returned over 95 percent of the deposits it has taken in since the year 2000. According to stats published by the Container Recycling Institute, these rates dramatically outpace those in states with nickel deposits, where redemption rates largely remain in the 60-to-80-percent range.

Those dimes add up, too. In 2008, Michigan returned over $407 million in deposits.

Could Kramer and Newman really have pulled off their stunt?

Possibly, but it would have been illegal. Bringing in containers from other states and taking Michigan’s dimes is technically fraud. In 2011, they’d have had an additional problem, as the state now uses “reverse vending machines” to scan barcodes and make sure the container in question is eligible for redemption.

Moreover, they might have had to find quite a few stores to redeem their cans. Under Michigan law, retailers have to return $25 worth of deposits per person per day. Retailers are allowed to return larger sums at their own discretion, but they’re only required to shell out $25 to each person. Since Kramer and Newman had $500 worth of cans apiece, they might have found themselves hoofing it to 20 different retailers.

Has anyone actually tried this scam?

Oh yeah. In 2007, Michigan State Police ran Operation Can Scam – no points for creative naming there – which led to the arraignment of 10 grocers and conspirators. The grocers’ scam was pretty much Kramer and Newman’s idea on a grander scale: smugglers in Ohio collected millions of cans and sold them to grocers at a discount off the 10-cent redemption value. The grocers then redeemed the deposits for the full dime, and everyone made a profit.

At least they did until the law caught wind of the scheme. In the course of making the 10 arrests, the authorities turned up millions of cans and $500,000 in cash. The director of the Michigan State Police told that similar scams defraud the state of $13 million each year.

What happens to any unclaimed dimes?

Even though an extremely high percentage of containers are returned, unclaimed deposits still regularly add up to eight-figure sums each year. Three quarters of that money goes into the Cleanup and Redevelopment Trust Fund to pay for environmental programs, while the remainder goes to the retailers.

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