Food coloring is an umbrella term.
Basically any ingredient (or mixture of ingredients) that changes the color of food when added is called food coloring.
This means that there’s no single “food coloring,” so whether or not it’s vegan will have to be determined on a case by case basis.
To make things more complicated, food dyes that you find in stores usually have a mixture of “natural” and “artificial” coloring ingredients.
We’ll look at a few examples so that you know what to look for.
A Typical “Natural” Food Coloring
The most popular product of this sort is Watkins food dye.
All of the ingredients are derived from “natural” sources, versus made synthetically in a lab.
Depending on the color of the dye, you’ll find the following ingredients:
- Invert sugar
- Vegetable juice
- Citric acid
- Sodium citrate
Most of those are obviously vegan, but glycerin is not so obvious.
Glycerin (or glycerol) can be derived from plant or animal sources. In this case, Watkins does say their dye is:
Derived from pure vegetable juices and spices
So I think it’s fairly safe to say that the glycerin is likely from vegetable sources. Contact the company if you’d like to be 100% sure.
Some Natural Dyes Are Not Vegan
Most natural dye ingredients are extracted from plants (e.g. annatto).
However, while it’s not common, look out for “carmine.”
It also may go by the name of “cochineal,” and is derived from crushed up insects.
A Typical “Artificial” Food Coloring
Artificial colors are a whole other story.
They are made synthetically, which is fine, but certain ones are often tested on animals. Here’s a detailed guide to which artificial colors are tested on animals. Not all vegans avoid them, but many do.
If you want to avoid those colorings, avoid:
- Red 3, 4, and 40
- Yellow 5, 6
- Green 3
- Blue 1, 2
These are banned in many places in Europe, but are pretty common in North America.
McCormick’s culinary food coloring is an example of one that contains these.
For example, here are the ingredients in their green coloring:
There’s both yellow 5 and blue 1, so I wouldn’t consider them strictly vegan.
Summary: Which Food Dyes Are Vegan?
Many food colorings are not vegan-friendly.
You’ll need to look at the ingredients for each brand, and possibly contact the manufacturer.
In general, strict vegans should look for “natural” food coloring, which are typically derived just from plants.