Mee goreng, Indian rojak, char siew rice, a glass of ice bandung to quench your thirst and then chendol or ice kachang for dessert. These are some familiar, comfort foods that you have known all your life. But do you know that each and every one of these dishes contains artificial food colouring? Most people feel safe about what we eat here in Singapore, especially since our food regulators, which include Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), generally follow internationally recognized guidelines. A food channel specialist at a renowned food manufacturer, whose role is to introduce new products to chefs and wholesalers for bulk purchasing, says, “I am not too concerned…as long as the product is right for the chef and AVA approves.” A HACCP consultant, who declined to be named, is confident that AVA-approved substances are safe for use and consumption.
The use of artificial food colouring is prevalent and accepted as the norm in Singapore. While they contain zero nutritional value and are purely aesthetic, they are still used because of certain colour associations in our culture, costs and industrial standards to follow. A Tiong Bahru roast pig and duck seller spreads an orange powdered dye-and-water mixture over the animal before roasting, giving it a gloriously appetising sheen of gold when it emerges smoking hot from the oven. Is it necessary to apply that colour? “Not really. The ‘normal’ roast duck rice stall don’t need to go through that extra step, but I have to do it if not it will look very ugly.” Especially for the hundreds of roast pigs that he sells in the auspicious eighth month in the lunar calendar when most Chinese couples choose to get married, it is of utmost importance that the pig looks as presentable as it tastes. A Teochew kueh seller sheepishly showed me a commercial-sized container of “No. 235 Rose Pink” which is used to give png kueh its iconic shade of pink. Another example is the ang ku kueh, which can only achieve the stunning scarlet hue with artificial colouring. A Nonya kueh seller is convinced that few customers will be willing to go for an alternative white-coloured ang ku kueh for the health-conscious, if the “ang” (Hokkien for red) is out of the equation.
Cost-wise, chlorophyll, a natural green colouring, is very expensive to extract since it requires sophisticated technology. Manufacturers for bottled iced tea have to use colouring too to regulate colour by batches. A dim sum stall at Tiong Bahru Market avoids the conundrum altogether by making oyster sauce-based char siew buns instead, omitting the need to have the traditional bright red meat filling.
When you see names like Red 3, Azorubine and Crimson Lake on an ingredient list, the last thing you should think of is “cool names” for rock bands or subversive nicks on the internet. They are various names that artificial red food colouring masquerade under. While conscientious consumers and experts can recognize artificial food colourants by the E numbers declared on ingredient labels, there is no law in Singapore demanding for label warnings. Reports of negative side-effects from sensitive individuals after consuming synthetic food dyes are inconclusive thus far but they warn of adverse effects for children with existing conditions. It prompted mandatory label warnings in the European Union since 2010 for six different synthetic food dyes. One of the six is a red dye called Carmoisine in AVA’s list of permitted food additives (or E122), which can be found in products such as bandung (rose syrup) drinks, ang ku kueh and png kueh, just to name a few. Some Singapore-based confectionery ingredient shops produce and sell a variety of artificial food colourings in powder and liquid form, with no prominent warning labels, if any at all. And what about your regular hawker centre food – where, how and should one put labels on a plate of red mee goreng?
So to the many of us who are eating foods containing artificial food colourings, how much is considered too much? According to Kalpana Bhaskaran, spokesperson and accredited nutritionist from the Singapore Nutrition & Dietetics Association, “Under the Singapore food regulations, we do not have Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADI) or permissible upper limits for food colourants.” Here, it seems that the onus is on the consumers to decide what to consume. What about the busy individual or the unsuspecting customer? A F&B consultant, who works with schools, coffeeshops and restaurants, suggested that one way food manufacturers can help is to include colouring codes and an allergen list on the packaging list so consumers can make the right decision. However, there is no way of stopping or regulating someone’s consumption levels, plus it is difficult to know what kind of side-effects it might cause to different individuals.
Newer generation food suppliers are erring towards the side of caution for the consumers’ benefit. Daniel Tay, founder of Foodgnostic Pte Ltd, (and ex-owner of Bakerzin) a contract and private label food manufacturing firm, which produces food items such as sandwiches, cakes and soups, said, “We do not use artificial food colouring. Everything has to be natural.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged that many bakeries and pastry shops are using artificial food colourings, especially in colourful treats such as macarons.
Are we doomed to eat plain-looking foods if we want to steer clear of artificial food colourings? At HarriAnn’s Delights, red sugar is used to give the tapioca kueh a delectable orange hue. Next to the ang ku kuehs, they offer an uglier but more natural black sesame version. To get green, pandan leaves is the common choice in Singapore, and turmeric for yellow. Blue can be derived from the butterfly or blue pea flower, which is used in foods like Nonya dumplings. Most red velvet cakes we have on the market nowadays contain red food colouring. What’s the alternative? Go DIY with the traditional recipe that uses natural cocoa powder and vinegar.
The rule is, as discerning foodies and consumers, that we should treat our bodies like temples and eat everything in moderation. It is important that we do our part to read the labels (wherever possible, as no one is personally looking out for you there), ask questions and be careful about foods that look suspiciously and unnaturally bright. After all, this is one part of your life where you do not need to add any more colour to.