Thursday, February 3, 2011

When an Orange Isn't Orange: Food Dyes in Fruit

Update: Since many people don't read the comments, I'd like to point out that the Florida Department of Citrus confirmed that Red Dye No. 2 is allowed and used early in the citrus season when the fall nights aren't as cold as necessary to develop the desired orange color. Therefore, I want to give you all three suggestions on how to avoid Red Dye No. 2 in your oranges:

• Buy organic oranges - the USDA certification process does not allow food dyes.
• Don't buy conventional Florida oranges early in the season. In practice, Citrus Red No. 2 is rarely used and only in the beginning of the season before the nights have turned cold. If your conventional orange is bright orange in the fall, it's probably been dyed.
• Buy California or Arizona citrus, these states prohibit the use of Citrus Red No. 2.

Photograph Courtesy of David Hammond

I’ve had oranges on the brain these days.

In Purple Asparagus’ school programs, we teach parents and children about delicious, nutritious, local and sustainable foods; a task that becomes a bit more complicated during these cold winter months. While we have several root vegetable curriculums that we pull out in the dark days of February, I like to start the year out with the sparkly seasonal flavors of citrus. Throughout January, I’m hauling blood oranges, Meyer lemons, satsumas, and kumquats for students to taste from the far north community of Rogers Park to the south side neighborhood of Englewood.

Each of our lesson plans start with a tasting. Our citrus curriculum is a popular one among our students. Kids love to learn that what they’ve always seen as the fruit bowl perennial actually has a season. They also are intrigued to discover that the standard naval orange (named for its resemblance to our belly) is only one kind of orange. We talk about the long strange trip of oranges, originating in China, brought by Arab traders to Europe, and then travelling as a seed with Christopher Columbus on a second journey to the Americas in 1493. We highlight the differences in color, cutting into the delicate pink fleshed Cara Cara and the brilliantly hued Moro. I also talk about the external differences in color. I recently learned that Florida oranges can be greenish on the exterior. Because the Sunshine State has a subtropical climate where nighttime temperatures are warmer, oranges often retain some green or yellow color, even though the fruit inside is fully ripe.

I probably didn’t know this interesting fact about oranges because it’s one that’s been hidden from us by orange producers for many years now. Consummate foodie, intrepid investigator, and friend, David Hammond, recently posted the above picture on LTHForum, a website for the food obsessed. A lively discussion that led to the conclusion that this particular orange had been dyed with Citrus Red #2, an FDA-approved colorant solely for dyeing the skins of Florida oranges that will be sold whole, not those intended for processing. This particular dye has been classified in Group 2B ("possibly carcinogenic to humans"), and so is recommended that it not be used as a food additive. One participant brought his concerns about the use of Citrus Red #2 to the FDA who did provide a quick, yet woefully, unsatisfying result. He specifically asked about the common use of orange rind by home cooks. As a former lawyer, I can tell you that the FDA’s response was chock full of legalese and devoid of common sense.

There’s been a lot of discussion on the blogosphere recently about food dyes. I referenced my friend Christina Le Beau’s widely distributed post on natural food dyes in my recent post on artificial colors in sports drinks. Another friend Gina Rau also wrote about avoiding these ubiquitous chemicals on her blog Feed Our Families. Finally, I learned about the fruit in question from Michele Hays’ excellent, yet underappreciated, blog. When we see a brightly colored cupcake strewn with sprinkles, we know that we’re consuming food dyes. Even when we give our kids Children’s’ Tylenol and its ilk, we can probably guess given its bright hue that it’s not colored naturally. But an orange? A natural, supposedly healthy snack. Why?

It’s because the industrial food system has managed our expectations and our perceptions on how our food should appear. Apples should be shiny, red and heart shaped; tomatoes, unblemished and ruby in shade (pay no attention to their lack of flavor). How many kids (and adults for that matter) are more familiar with the flavor grape than the actual flavor of a grape? How sad.

Recently a fellow food educator questioned my use of a blood orange in one of our school recipes. I got a little defensive at first until I realized that she was actually just curious. My defensiveness is a result of answering more than a few directed questions about why we introduce green zebra tomatoes or purple carrots to kids whose neighborhood corner store stocks more varieties of Cheetos than fresh vegetables. Why do we do it? First and foremost to get the kids excited. Imagine their horror and delight when introduced face to face with the red flesh of a blood orange. (Eww, blood, ooh, blood!). I also feel that it’s akin to a music teacher introducing children to opera or classical music. While many children may not hear it at home, that doesn’t mean that they won’t find inspiration in it. But now, I’ve found another justification. We need to show children what real food looks like, not what the industrial food system has spawned. If they do, perhaps they’ll do what older generations have not, embrace the beautiful and delicious imperfection of real food. Because if our kids understand that an orange may not always be orange, perhaps we won’t need Citrus Red # 2.


Cranberry-Orange Muffins with Chocolate Chips and Streusel Topping

Here’s a terrific use for orange zest. I use organic oranges from California thus avoiding Citrus Red #2.

Muffin Batter
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs
½ cup buttermilk
½ stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 teaspoon orange zest

Streusel Topping
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon orange zest
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Preheat the oven to 400° F. Fill 12 regular muffin cups with silicone or paper liners. Combine the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, butter, and lemon juice in another bowl. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ones. Stir to combine. Gently mix in the cranberries, chocolate chips and orange zest. Scoop the batter equally into the lined cups.

Stir together the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and orange zest in a small bowl. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingers. Sprinkle the streusel topping over the muffins.

Bake for 20 minutes in the center of the oven or until a tester comes out clean. Cool on a rack. The muffins are best eaten the day that they’re made.

Posted as part of Real Food Fridays


  1. First, thanks for mentioning our posts on food dyes this week at Feed Our Families. I've really appreciated all the comments that we're getting from other families.

    Ok, this is so upsetting. Really, beyond upsetting. We love eating citrus in our home this time of year - especially Cutie clementines. My kids gobble them up. And citrus is one of those fruits that I never think to buy organic because we're not eating the peel.

    But the peel on those clementines are sooo thin - if there's food dye, I can't imagine we're not consuming it. Guess what my next research project is? For now, we'll buy organic, just to be safe.

    These situations are so frustrating. It's only in America that we have expectations of beautiful fruits and vegetables, which leads our food manufactures (and conventional growers) to tactics that beautify our food. It's not necessary.

    If I don't say anything, my kids see nothing wrong with food that doesn't look perfect. They grow their own and visit the farmers market enough to understand that fruit and veggies right from the ground aren't perfect.

    The hearings on the use of artificial food colors in our food system can't come fast enough. I hope our government steps up and acts on our behalf this time around.

  2. I can't say I'm "shocked".

    In defense of the food industry, they aren't so much trying to manage our expectations as meet them. We taste with our eyes first, right? So consumers expect an orange to be orange and are hesitant to grab one that's maybe slightly green. Industry responds by making sure we don't see the green. It's not like they're really changing the product, just adding a little blush and eyeliner.

    The problem is that this becomes a sort of co-dependency between consumers and the food industry. Why is butter the color it is? Why is chicken skin yellow? I can give you example after example where consumers and industry influence each other in an intricate dance.

    Breaking the cycle of co-dependency is tough. You can't just say "Bad industry." (That is a necessary, but not sufficient step) You need to modify the expectations of the consumer as well. The best of all worlds would be to harness industry in that modification. It costs money to modify/color food. Why not spend some of that budget on educating people about what real food is like? A wise investment in advertising might both reduce costs and increase revenue.

  3. Sniff - I'm glad YOU appreciate me, Melissa! ;-)

    Thanks, and right back atcha for the excellent blog!

    I have to say, I'm conflicted about food dyes...but I'm decidedly concerned about non-food-safe-dyes in food! Not sure how this one slipped through.

    I also agree about "ugly" produce - my personal pet peeve is gorgeous red tomatoes with the little vine attached - that taste like wallpaper paste (it's what led me to reach out to the blogosphere in the first place!)

  4. Dear Melissa,

    Please allow me to respond on behalf of the Florida Department of Citrus.

    Florida law allows the use of "color-add" (Citrus Red No. 2) on early early season fruit, when the inside of the fruit is completely mature, but orange and red pigments have not developed in the peel. The use of color-add is strictly limited by law.

    The development of natural orange color in oranges is dependent on the weather and requires a series of cold nights, a weather condition which is not normal in the early fall in Florida.

    In practice, Citrus Red No. 2 is rarely used and only in the beginning of the season.

    Color-add (Citrus Red No. 2) is NOT the same product as FD&C Red No. 2 (also known as Amaranth) which was banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

    Please feel free to contact us if you have further questions.


    Karen Mathis

  5. Interesting post; I just ate a "Cutie Clementine" for my breakfast, and the degree and quality of the "orange" (even in the pith, which was kind of "pink"!) seemed "funny," and I Googled "citrus dye" to see if my suspicions were correct.

    How stupid this is! Yet it's true: Americans are conditioned to look for the orange oranges, not the green ones. If only we Americans "got out more," say, to South America, where in Brazil, the oranges one finds at a fruit stand are all green, because they don't have "autumn" weather there to take the green out of the oranges (and the leaves on trees).

    The irony of my situation is that I specifically LOOK for the green oranges when I shop--in part, to be perverse (because, ha-hah! I know they are ripe) and in part to have an entire "category" of navels in the pile that I know have been handled less by other people, a subset of the display that is all my own.

    And so the bag of "Cuties" I selected had several greenish fruits in it--they seemed kind of dark greenish, not the usual chartreuse--I guess I could have suspected right there. But it's FEBRUARY! And this is a relatively new shipment. Why are they dying them now?

    I'm actually not so concerned at the potential health effects of the dye (I know the pizzas and french fries I gobble up are far worse for my health than the fruits and vegetables I eat); but I am frankly pissed off at the situation where American shoppers tend to bypass the produce that doesn't perfectly resemble the Photoshopped gorgeous pictures we're constantly shown, and the Citrus Industry knows they'll simply sell more if they put the damn dye on 'em.

    And a note on the above comment from Karen Mathis: As health advocates have been pointing out for a long, long time, JUST BECAUSE THE ADDITIVES ARE "STRICTLY LIMITED BY LAW" DOESN'T MEAN THEY'RE TRULY SAFE FOR US OR THAT THEY'RE EVEN BENIGN (reflect on that word for a second). IT DOESN'T MEAN WE WANT TO EAT THEM.

    Julie Schroeder

  6. Hello! I am reading this several years later.... fascinating (and disturbing!) As far as you know, has anything changed since 2011? Is the dye still allowed in early-season fruit?

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  12. Hi,
    Just wanted to clarify for you but the piece of fruit pictured is actually a natural mutation! We have a citrus property and packhouse in Australia and this type of marking is seen quite often and grows this way on the tree! Its actually quite pretty and looks even better orange with a green stripe :)

    On a side note - a bit horrified to find out that citrus is artificially dyed!!

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