Smarties

The ins and outs of how we colour our food

Nestle’s new television adverts for Smarties are a cross between grown-up Teletubbies in head-to-toe lycra jumpsuits and the parable of the prodigal son. You’ve probably caught a glimpse of their idyllic, pastoral scene being abruptly disrupted by the appearance of Blue Smartie on the ridgeline. His former friends flee to the safety of their tubular home, dispatching Yellow to get rid of the unwelcome intruder. All is well though, because Blue is now free of artificial colours; no longer a pariah, he can rejoin the community. The Smarties rainbow is complete again.

How sweet. But, one wonders, why were the old colours dropped? Why has it taken so long to replace blue? And perhaps most importantly, what has it been replaced with?

Nestle got rid of the artificial colourants in Smarties three years ago.

Until then, the blue shade was provided by an extract from coal tar which revels in the food additives label E133. Though banned at one time or another by Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden, Brilliant Blue, as it is more commonly known, is currently deemed safe for use as a food dye within the EU.

The reason for dropping Brilliant Blue, and several other colours, was for appearances, admits Richard Wood, regulatory affairs manager and food law adviser at Nestle confectionary. A growing number of consumers are demanding additive-free products. The trend got another boost late last year when a study conducted for the Food Standards Agency by Professor Jim Stevenson at Southampton University linked artificial additives with hyperactivity in children, even though the connection was not strong.

Nestle, like other food processing companies, is keen to be on the right side of that trend. Rather than arguing until it’s blue in the face that E133 is safe, it prefers to trumpet its newly natural ingredients, though perhaps without going in to too much detail.

Take cochineal, for instance, an ingredient that contributes to the red, orange and chocolate brown tones in Smarties. Cochineal comes originally from Mexico, where it is found in the bodies of a cactus parasite, an insect called Dactylopius coccus. For centuries, these bugs have been swept off cacti, boiled or baked and used as a reddish dye.

Records from Montezuma’s reign show it was part of the tribute paid by at least 11 of the Aztec cities he conquered, before himself being overthrown by the Spanish. During the 20th century, the cochineal industry was all but wiped out by cheaper artificial colours, but has been making a comeback in recent years as demand grows for natural ingredients, no matter how unpalatable they may be.

Blue was harder to replace, though. Which is not surprising. Historically, blue has always been the most difficult colour. The first colour-fast blue dye came from shellfish and was so valuable that only the aristocracy could afford it. Purple has traditionally been the colour of royalty for a reason.

Nestle eventually found a substitute in alkalai ponds. A cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, called Spirulina (actually two species, Arthrospira platensis, and Arthrospira maxima) provides the appropriate colour, though food scientists worried that its strong seaweed smell might put off customers, Mr Wood said. Fortunately, the concentration of Spirulina is so low that the odour is masked by the rich aroma of the chocolate.

Like cochineal, the use of spirulina as a food comes to us from Mexico, where, according to one of Cortes’s soldiers, it was harvested from lake Texcoco (now Mexico City) by dragging a rope across the surface, drying the sludge into cakes and selling them as food under the brand name Teocuitlatl, meaning “stone’s excrement”. Clearly the Aztec’s had an interesting sense of truth in advertising. Both Nasa and the European Space Agency have proposed it as a possible food source for long interplanetary missions, such as to Mars.

At a molecular level, the distinction between artificial and natural disappears. Artificiality does not necessarily mean dangerous, any more than naturalness means safe. Nature has many deadly products, from toadstools and digitalis to snake venoms. As scientists investigate what we eat in greater detail, it is becoming clear that foods can have both beneficial and detrimental effects at the same time.

For an example of this, one need look no further than beta carotene, another natural Smarties additive derived from the fungus Blakeslea trispora found in the orange and red sweets. Beta carotene is most famous for giving carrots their orange hue, but it has also been found to have anti-oxidant properties, and 50mg every two days has been shown to prevent cognitive decline among 4,000 physicians. On the down side, it has been linked to increased risk of lung cancer among smokers and those who have been exposed to asbestos. Fortunately for Nestle, the doses contained in Smarties are so low they are unlikely to make much difference.