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Food Colours in Selected Foods - April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014

Food chemistry - Targeted surveys - Final report

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Summary

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. The 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 875 samples were tested for food colour additives. Food colours were not detected in 585 (67%) of the samples tested. When compared to previous survey years, these results show a similar detection rate and compliance (97.8%) rate. Most of the non-compliant residue results were attributed to a missing or incorrect declaration of a permitted food colour being made on the product label, or to the presence of permitted colours above the maximum level(s). Only 1 sample contained a non-permitted food colour.

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 beverages, cereal, dairy products, palm oil, pickled vegetables, sauces, soups, spices and sweets were sampled between April 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014. 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.

Table 1. Distribution of samples based on product type and origin
Product type Number of domestic samples Number of imported samples Number of samples of unspecified Table Note a origin Total number of samples
Beverages 38 31 102 171
Cereal 3 56 62 121
Dairy products 25 15 14 54
Palm oil 0 23 2 25
Pickled vegetables 5 56 10 71
Sauces 1 39 8 48
Soups 2 10 3 15
Spices 4 73 58 135
Sweets 43 84 108 235
Grand total 121 387 367 875

Table Notes

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.

Return to table note a  referrer

What analytical methods were used and how were samples assessed

Samples were analyzed by an ISO 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 875 food samples tested, food colours were not detected in 585 (67%) of the samples. There were no food colors detected in the palm oil, soup and sauce samples tested. The samples with detected levels of food colours contained up to seven food colours per sample. Most of these samples (92%) contained 1 to 4 colours.

Table 2 summarizes food colours detected and their prevalence in each product type. Beverages, cereals and sweets had the highest percentage of samples containing 1 or more food colours at 52%, 57% and 41%, respectively. The highest average levels of and the highest non-compliance rates were also found in these commodities. Overall, 19 samples were non-compliant with the Canadian food regulations. Most of these samples were attributed to a missing or incorrect declaration of a permitted food colour being made on the product label (13 samples), or to the presence of permitted colours above the maximum level (8 samples). Only 1 sample contained a non-permitted food colour.

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 89% of positive results. They were the most commonly detected in all survey years. All food colours detected were water-soluble.

Table 2. Summary of food colour testing in selected foods
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 residue results)
Beverages 171 90 (53%) 133 4 (4)
Cereal 121 69 (57%) 244 0 (0)
Dairy products 54 15 (28%) 24 1 (1)
Palm oil 25 0 (0) 0 0 (0)
Pickled vegetables 71 10 (14%) 16 1 (1)
Sauces 48 0 (0) 0 0 (0)
Soups 15 0 (0) 0 0 (0)
Spices 135 10 (7%) 18 11 (14)
Sweets 235 96 (41%) 225 2 (2)
Grand total 875 290 (33%) 660 19 (22)
Table 3. Food colours detected and the number of samples in which the colour was detected
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)
Allura Red 182 5538
Tartrazine 144 190
Brilliant Blue FCF 139 124
Sunset Yellow FCF 124 3127
Erythrosin B 29 949
Amaranth 16 72.1
2,4,5 and/or 2,4,7-triiodofluorescein Table Note c 16 22.8
Indigo Carmine 6 4.7
Orange II Table Note c 1 7.7
Fast Green FCF 1 0.3
Fast Red E Table Note c 1 0.7
Ponceau 4R (New Coccine) Table Note c 1 20.1

Table Notes

Table Note b

Samples may contain more than one food colour.

Return to table note b  referrer

Table note c

May be present as a subsidiary food colour.

Return to table note c  referrer

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 875 samples tested, 856 (97.8%) samples were in compliance with the Canadian standards and limits. Table 4 summarizes the five years of targeted survey data for food colours. The compliance rate in 2013 to 2014 was similar to previous survey years. In general, the same types of non-compliant residue results found in the current survey were found in previous surveys. Despite disparity in products sampled across the surveys years, the detection rates are consistentFootnote 11,Footnote 12,Footnote 13,Footnote 14.

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.

Table 4. Food colours results from various survey years
Survey year Number of samples Detection rate (%) Compliance rate (%) Number of non-compliant samples (number of non-compliant residue results)
2013 to 2014 875 33 97.8 19 (22)
2012 to 2013Table Note g 1493 58 97.6 36 (38)
2011 to 2012Table Note f 1799 29 97.8 39 (41)
2010 to 2011Table Note e 1546 36 96.2 58 (61)
2009 to 2010Table Note d 100 41 93 7 (8)

Table Notes

Table note d

2009-2010 Food Colours Used in the Production of Manufactured Foods. (2018). Canada. Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Return to table note d  referrer

Table note e

2010-2011 Food Colours in Selected Foods. (2018). Canada. Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Return to table note e  referrer

Table note f

2011-2012 Food Colours in Selected Foods. (2018). Canada. Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Return to table note f  referrer

Table note g

2012-2013 Food Colours in Selected Foods. Canada. Canadian Food Inspection Agency. [unpublished data]

Return to table note g  referrer

The levels of food colours observed in this survey were evaluated by HC's Bureau of Chemical Safety who determined that none of the samples would pose an unacceptable human health concern, therefore there were no recalls resulting from this survey.

Appendix A

List of colours tested by the accredited laboratory in this survey (permitted colours in bold)

Water-soluble colours

Fat-soluble colours

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