Food Colourings - AZO versus non-AZO?

22 May 2019

by  Erik Van der Veken

A colourful chocolate or pastry display is bound to attract attention, but do you know where your colour is coming from? 

In the last few weeks, the issue of food colouring has come up quite a few times: During my conversations with Michael Zorin, the Sosa Ingredients chef who did a demonstration with us a few weeks ago and during my IBC Belgium factory visit subsequently.

 Sosa Ingredients is making a push to move away from synthetic food colourings. (The ones we are currently using the most).  Instead, Sosa is promoting the use of freeze-dried fruit and vegetable powders to colour chocolate, cocoa butter etc.

Of course, using freeze-dried fruits isn’t going to work everywhere. IBC, one of the leading companies in food colouring for the chocolate and pastry world are also making a push for the so-called ‘non-AZO’ colourings as an alternative for “AZO” colours.

Are you still with me? Don’t worry; it took me a while to understand the difference between ‘AZO' and ‘non-AZO’ colourings as well.

So let’s have a look at the options we have available, their advantages but also their problems.

The definition of a food colour

Food colours are additives and can be any dye, pigment or other substance that can impart the colour of food but can’t be consumed as such. All additives that are safe for use in food have received an E-number from the European Safety Authority (EFSA). For example Carmine is E120, and Allura Red is E129. 

To immediately address a myth here: E-numbers can be 100% natural, so the fear of E-numbers is based on misinformation.

The use of food colours is subject to EU rules (Regulation 1333/2008/EC) to ensure a high level of human health and consumer protection. US- and Japan-specific regulations applied to food colours may differ from EU regulations. 

From natural origin colouring foods

I put the ‘foods’ in the title in italic for a reason:

Colouring foods are ingredients that can give colour to food and can be consumed as such. The essential characteristics of their source are maintained, and there is no selective extraction. All colouring foods are E-number free. 

Ingredients considered as colouring food: 

tomato concentrate, coffee, cocoa, spinach, spirulina, safflower, etc.

Colouring foods are foods or food ingredients which retain their essential characteristics. They can be used in their raw state or processed form by concentrating, cooking, drying or milling.
The colour pigments are not selectively extracted from the original food. 

Benefits of using ‘from natural origin colouring foods’ are that you don’t need to declare any E-numbers.

The downside of using these foods to obtain colours is that they do come with a taste, which may or may not suit your creation.
Colouring foods don’t tend to keep the colour for prolonged times when exposed to air and light. For products where a long shelf life is needed, like chocolate bonbons, for example, that is a problem.

The cost tends to be higher, as well.

Synthetic food colourings

Synthetic food colours are chemically synthesised from aniline and have nothing to do with natural food sources.

Synthetic food colours have the brightest colours by far.
When you see a bright red or green cake, assume there is a lot of synthetic food colouring in there.

Most synthetic food colourings are “AZO colours” and contain an “N=N group” (double nitrogen binding) as part of their structure. In chemistry, this N=N group is called an AZO group. AZO groups do not occur naturally; they are always synthetic. 

AZO colours are brighter, more stable, more resistant to light & air and less expensive than non-AZO colours. 

The European regulations stipulate strict maximum allowed dosages of AZO-colourings in food products and requires the declaration of E numbers on the label.

From natural origin food colourings

“From natural origin” food colourings are made from an extraction of a vegetable, animal or mineral source. 

These food colours come from natural origin, and thus they don’t contain the AZO group. They are more sensitive to light & heat and are more expensive than synthetic colours. 

Examples: Curcumine (E100), carmine (E120), iron oxides (E172), etc. 

Non-AZO colours are less bright than AZO colours, but a higher dose can be used before going over the legal threshold when compared to AZO colours.
I prefer the non-AZO colours as they have a more natural look to them.

Southampton colours

A  study published by the University of Southampton shows that the following six synthetic colours (5 AZO and 1 non-AZO) increase hyperactive behaviour in children.

Sunset yellowE110
Quinoline yellowE104
Allura redE129
Ponceau 4RE124

When using Southampton colours, European legislation requires you to mention the following on the label of your final product: 

“May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”.


I believe that in the current consumers climate; when it comes to products that will be consumed it’s advised to opt for NON-AZO and “From natural origin colouring foods” to colour our products and reserve the synthetic colours as much as possible for the creation of  chocolate showpieces and other artworks that are unlikely to be consumed.
It’s not a great thing to have to write “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” on your label.

The amount of AZO colours you can use in your products before going over the legal allowance is small, much smaller than many people think. IBC Belgium has as great to App. You can download that can help you calculate your recipes to see if you are within the allowed parameters.

At the moment the legislators tend to be more lenient with artisans, but this will change, and we will have to comply.

*The legal information provided is merely indicative and cannot be considered legally binding to Redmond Fine Foods.