Colourants: Dyes Pigments and the truth about E numbers!

Updated: Mar 19


Hi all,

It's been a challenging week for me with a poorly Noah, who couldn't sleep with his cold and was miserable. Then just as he was getting better he fell and hit his tooth! He's on the mend now thankfully and getting back to his cheeky cheerful self. I've just come back from the veggie garden having lined the first raised bed and shovelling in some of my soil/compost mix which arrived today...spading that stuff in was like using a teaspoon to fill a cup! It looks great though! The kids and I have been decorating it down there, I'll share pics next week. What this week is about - as promised - is COLOURS!


One of my favourite subjects! I won't go too technical because a)I'm not qualified to do so, I'm no chemist and this stuff can get COMPLICATED! and b) I don't want my blogs to be too long and dull to read. If anyone has questions or wants me to cover a specific area I'll gladly do that.


Anyways..colours..I use colours for Tiny Land products, and when cooking at home. I want to make sure that not only have the colours I use for Tiny Land been EU (and FD&C) approved for Toys use (a legal obligation) but is food grade.


I prefer to use Natural materials in my home as much as possible. The more I research into natural materials the more I learn that natural is not always best. I have included some points of explanation below. And in my research I have concluded that the only natural pigments or dyes that I will use, are those that are also Food Grade.


Colours come in 2 forms..Dyes and Pigments. Pigments have a larger particle size than Dyes and therefore are not soluble in water and are also opaque. Dyes are transparent.


Dyes are mostly water soluble (it gets complicated...you can check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dye) and are therefore clear. If you think about a cup of tea before you put any milk in, or bagged herbal tea..you can see the colour has ran into the water and the water has dissolved the tea. That's a dye. They are sold highly concentrated (due to their size) so look much darker when they are in a packet than when added to water. If you dyed a piece of wood and the cut it, you would see the dye has soaked into the wood towards the core.


Pigments are like cocoa..you need to mix it well to get it to disperse evenly into the water or milk..but it never really dissolves. (Is a suspension/dispersion not a solution) It can float to the bottom. When you buy a pigment it looks the same as will when you apply it. Pigments sit on top of wood. If you painted with a pigment, and then cut the wood you would only see the layer on the outside.


Either of these types are available as natural or synthetic colourants. The terms Organic and Inorganic are used with colourants. In this case, Organic means having been biological or alive e.g. plant or animal and Inorganic relates to natural but not alive such as minerals/rocks etc.


Dyes - Natural dyes "think water soluble" are available from plants. There are many wonderful sources of colour you can use for dying paper, fabrics etc. Fruit and Vegetables such as Spinach and Beetroot or Turmeric. Both Turmeric and Beetroot are natural PH indicators which means they change colour in varying Ph levels. I learned this by accident dying my t shirt in Turmeric and washing it with my home made detergent and it went a burgundy red! Hydrangeas turn blue when they are in an acid soil...I find all this stuff SO interesting as when you walk through forests or the few meadows we have now you can see the natural world is so alive! I love foraging too. I will write up sources of natural dyes at some point.

You need to use a Mordant to dye fabric which means something to make it 'fast' (stick to the item) such as an acid (vinegar) or yeast. Again I found out by accident when straining my home cider..the tannins in the apples and the yeast stained my muslins a lovely caramel brown! Most of these dyes will also oxidise when left in water..that means they will change colour into greys or browns as water is not their natural home. I recommend the book Wild Colour by Jenny Dean if you're into dying fabrics or yarns.

So for any of my DRY products (play dough, rainbow rice etc). I use natural food colourings where possible. All food colourings are dyes (unless you use food paint) I DO NOT use Cochineal. This is a red taken from bugs who are squished to extract the colour.


For paints, it's very difficult to use natural dyes as they will change and have a very short shelf life. Also on the paper once painted they change, so your masterpiece will not look so great after a day or so. This can be due to UV light fading it, or oxidisation, depending on the dye. It is best to use a pigment for paint, as they provide a more bold and less transluscent quality.


The EU assess at a very strict level anything that is for food use. Including Colours, preservatives, ingredients etc. Anything identified as an 'additive' e.g not added for the sake of it's flavour or textural qualities, has been passed and certified with an E number. Natural or Synthetic - the treatment is the same for all 'additives'. The full list is here: https://www.food.gov.uk/science/additives/enumberlist

When you see a paint state it uses "Natural Pigments", this doesn't mean it has been taken from the earth and used as-is. Mineral Pigments are made by mimicking those found inn the natural world or putting together say, 2 known natural ingredients or extracts and heat treating or purifying it.


In fact, Oxides for example are made Industrial Grade first, and then in order to make them suitable for toys they need to remove a certain amount of heavy metals. Then in order to make them food grade, they have to process it further to reduce the levels even more. I personally have looked into a lot of materials and some which are approved by the EU for food have not passed my test for ethical or safety reasons e.g Cochneal.


A few synthetic food dyes however, have been shown (in a Southampton Uni study) to increase hyperactivity in children when eated in quantity and these have been called the Southampton 6. These can be replaced in food but are tricky as mentioned earlier. There is a great article here on this. https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/multimedia/pdfs/publication/guidelinessotonsixcolours.pdf



Dyes also can be added to various salts which are not water soluble to enable them opaque and to act as pigments. This is particularly useful if you want a natural 'pigment', but again you need to look at the salt is has been added to. Some are edible. When a dye is made to act as a pigment it is called a Lake. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_pigment

Pigments natural source is from minerals/rocks (inorganic)! You can grind up stones to create mainly earth tones. One natural pigment which is particularly bright is Lapis Lazuli - a semi precious stone which was difficult to come by and so synthesised in the 1800's for artists looking for a beautiful deep blue. This is Ultramarine. You can find various stones around river beds or rocky areas and grind them into powders to make your own pigments - another foraging trip on my list!

Some pigments which have been mined are not approved for food use or even use in other materials because of their heavy metal content. Basically it's not easy to ensure that they don't contain Lead and other harmful - and natural - materials.

E171 - Titanium Dioxide - is an example of a Pigment approved by the EU for food. It is a strong white found in nature but now synthesised. It's used in toothpaste. You can only get a white Pigment not a dye as white is not transparent.


Iron Oxides are also naturally occurring (yes rust is a form of this but not used in food!) they were forms of Iron (which we eat in green leafy veg) which has reacted with Oxygen. Various earthy tones of Red, Yellow and even Green are available in these pigments. They are synthesised too.

Micas or Mica is a greyish shimmering rock which is mined in various countries such as India or USA. In India it is typically mined by children and so this is another area I am researching into - finding good, fair trade sources! It can be purified for food use and is often added to colour pigments to use for cosmetics such as eye shadow. Another area to look out for if you want fair trade make up!

I hope this blog article has been helpful to people in understanding what's out there! The application of these colourants is a whole other article. Next week I'll be writing about our time in the garden and pottering about..give our brains a rest! :)

#colours #colorants #dyes #pigments #naturalcolour #wildcolour

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Contact Alison: email: contact@tiny-land.co.uk  Tel: 07951469922 

Location: Rowfant Cottage, Wallage Lane, RH10 4NG

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