But, even as that’s happening, artificial coloring is still considered normal. Even today’s conscious consumers mostly aren’t asking for companies not to use dyes at all; they are just asking to substitute synthetic dyes with natural ones. They probably don't want foods without any colors, which can look kind of ugly.
This reminds me of something that happened with Starbucks. Starbucks was using what is called a cochineal dye, which is a natural dye derived from insects, to color its strawberry Frappuccinos. It’s a natural dye—it’s not synthetic—but many American consumers thought it was gross to use insects for dyeing a milkshake. So they petitioned against using those dyes, and Starbucks started using a tomato-based dye instead. Consumers were happy with that. But tomato-based dye for strawberry-flavored drinks is not really natural—it’s just assumed that it’s normal to color food, as long as the dyes or the ingredients are things that consumers consider safe or natural.
Joe Pinsker: Have humans always been manipulating the color of their food? When did synthetic dyes start to be widely used?
Ai Hisano: It wasn’t necessarily mass-produced in factories like some other products, but butter was one of the earliest food products that was colored using synthetic dyes. The artificial coloring of butter has a long history, going back at least to the 14th century—European farmers back then colored butter with carrot juice and annatto, which is a dye made from tree seeds. They did this to make it the same color year-round, because it is naturally yellower in the summer, when the grass that cows eat has more pigment in it.
So in the mid- to late 19th century American farmers began coloring butter by using food dyes produced and supplied by dye manufacturers, rather than making the dyes themselves. The dyes, or synthetic dyes, produced by manufacturers were more standardized and stable, so dairy farmers could color butter a more uniform yellow. Before the late 19th century, butter had been colored, so it’s not as if the color of butter all of a sudden became yellow year-round. But the use of synthetic dyes was a change, and dairy farmers did this to some types of cheese as well, like cheddar.
Pinsker: As foods’ colors got standardized, did consumers start to make different assumptions about how their food was made?
Hisano: Well, I haven’t studied how consumers came to understand food production. But I think in several instances, as producers came to market colored fruits or vegetables or other foods, consumers came to expect any produce to be uniform in shape and appearance, all year, without seasonality.
I think that attitude changed over time, and especially these days, people are more suspicious about the use of chemicals in agriculture or even processed foods. Those kinds of changes are reflected by the rise of Whole Foods and organic markets, which charge premium prices and make the claim that they don't use chemicals. I think that consumers’ attitudes toward how food should look have changed—having foods look uniform and consistent could be a downside rather than an advantage for food companies and food producers.