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By Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator

Q. How do they make “colors” for food?  Are they kosher-sensitive?

A. Food colorings can be divided into two groups: artificial and natural.  The artificial ones, such as FD&C Blue #1 or FD&C Yellow #5, are typically made from petroleum and similar innocuous sources and do not present much of a kashrus concern when they are “pure”.  However, they are sometimes blended with glycerin or other kosher-sensitive ingredients, and in those cases, they would obviously require hashgachah.

Many of the natural colors are also free of inherent kashrus concerns.  This includes green, orange, and purple colors created with or from chlorophyl, carotenoids, and red cabbage, respectively.  However, the same is not true of certain other natural colors.  For example, enocianina (a.k.a., eno, E-163) is created from the solid remains after grapes have been squeezed for grape juice and wine production.  These will be assur mid’rabannan as stam yayin, unless specially made under hashgachah.  Another example is carmine, which is made by crushing cochineal insects to create very stable red, orange, pink, and lavender colors.  This product is assur mid’oraisah like the bug it is made from.  [Carmine is also known as carminic acid, E-120, crimson lake, CI 75470, and cochineal extract.]

We have already noted that enocianina is assur mid’rabannan, and carmine is assur mid’oraisah.  Of course, from a l’chatchilah perspective, we would, therefore, not add any of these colors to a kosher food.  However, there is a significant halachic difference between these two colors as relates to b’dieved cases, where they were used in a finished food product.  This is because these colors are invariably used in tiny proportions where they would be batel b’shishim in any food product.  However, some Poskim rule that anytime something non-kosher provides color (chasuzah) to a food, that makes that ingredient so “important” that it cannot be batel even if it is used in very small amounts.  There are many opinions regarding that issue, and it is generally accepted to follow the ruling of Pri Chadash YD 102:5, that when the color is assur mid’oraisah one should be machmir, but we can be lenient if the color itself is only assur mid’rabannan.

This means that if carmine was used to give a “strawberry” yogurt its pinkish/red color, the carmine cannot be batel, since it is assur mid’oraisah, and, therefore, the yogurt would be forbidden.  [Even so, utensils used with that food would not require kashering, since the tiny amount of carmine does not provide any ta’am/taste, and kashering is only required when there is non-kosher ta’am that must be extracted.]  However, if enocianina was mistakenly used to give a candy its purple color, then b’dieved the candy would remain kosher.

One common consumer question about colors relates to fresh, raw salmon which is labeled as being “artificially colored”.  The average person reading this thinks that this means that the fish was dyed with some coloring agent.  In fact, that is not at all what it means. Rather, it just indicates that these fish were raised in a “fish farm” (basically, a large swimming pool), and their food purposely included something called astaxanthin, so that the fish can develop their natural pinkish/orange color.  [Fish which live in the sea also eat food that contains astaxanthin, and the requirement to label farm-raised salmon as being “artificially colored” is a government way to support fishermen who sell wild-raised salmon.]  Thus, this type of statement on salmon does not raise any kashrus concerns.

This article first appeared in the Let’s Talk Kashrus column, Yated Ne’eman, December 8, 2023.