Caramel color or caramel coloring is a water-soluble food coloring. It
is made by heat treatment of carbohydrates, in general in the presence
of acids, alkalis, or salts, in a process called caramelization. It is
more fully oxidized than caramel candy, and has an odor of burnt sugar
and a somewhat bitter taste. Its color ranges from pale yellow to
amber to dark brown.
Caramel color is one of the oldest and most widely used food colorings
for enhancing naturally occurring colors, correcting natural
variations in color, and replacing color that is lost to light
degradation during food processing and storage. The use of caramel
color as a food additive in the brewing industry in the 19th century
is the first recorded instance of it being manufactured and used on a
wide scale. Today, caramel color is found in many commercially
produced foods and beverages, including batters, beer, brown bread,
buns, chocolate, cookies, cough drops, spirits and liquor such as
brandy, rum, and whisky, chocolate-flavored confectionery and
coatings, custards, decorations, fillings and toppings, potato
chips, dessert mixes, doughnuts, fish and shellfish spreads, frozen
desserts, fruit preserves, glucose tablets, gravy, ice cream,
pickles, sauces and dressings, soft drinks (especially colas),
sweets, vinegar, and more.
Caramel color is widely approved for use in
food globally but application and use level restrictions vary by
In Asia, the demand for caramel color in sauces exceeds that for
4 Additional function
5.2 Food allergies
Caramel color is manufactured by heating carbohydrates, either alone
or in the presence of acids, alkalis, and/or salts.
Caramel color is
produced from commercially available nutritive sweeteners consisting
of fructose, dextrose (glucose), invert sugar, sucrose, malt syrup,
molasses, starch hydrolysates, and fractions thereof. The acids that
may be used are sulfuric, sulfurous, phosphoric, acetic, and citric
acids; the alkalis are ammonium, sodium, potassium, and calcium
hydroxides; and the salts are ammonium, sodium, and potassium
carbonate, bicarbonate, phosphate (including mono- and dibasic),
sulfate, and bisulfite. Antifoaming agents, such as polyglycerol
esters of fatty acids, may be used as processing aids during
manufacture. Its color ranges from pale-yellow to amber to
Caramel color molecules carry either a positive or a negative charge
depending upon the reactants used in their manufacture. Problems such
as precipitation, flocculation, or migration can be eliminated with
the use of a properly charged caramel color for the intended
Internationally, the United Nations Joint Food and Agriculture
Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food
Additives (JECFA) recognizes four classes of caramel color, differing
by the reactants used in their manufacture, each with its own INS and
E number, listed in the table below. Each class consists of a variety
of caramels with their own unique properties that make it suitable for
use in specific foods and/or beverages.
INS / E Number
Properties, Qualities, & Benefits
150a / E150a
Plain caramel, caustic caramel, spirit caramel
Strong aftertaste and mild aroma; color ranges from yellow to red;
stable in alcohol, tannin, and salt-rich environments
Whiskey and other high proof alcohols, pet food, cookies, crackers,
cereal bars, other baked goods, lemonade products, juice concentrates,
and cocoa extenders
150b / E150b
Caustic sulfite caramel
Mild flavor and aroma; exceptional red tone; good stability in alcohol
Tea, wine, rum, whiskey, brandy, cognac, sherry, some vinegars, light
cake mixes, and other snack foods
150c / E150c
Ammonia caramel, baker's caramel, confectioner's caramel, beer caramel
Sweet aroma; red-brown color; stable in alcohol and salt-rich
Beer, cereal, pet food, licorice, confectionery, and gravy, soy, and
150d / E150d
Sulfite ammonia caramel, acid-proof caramel, soft-drink caramel
Very mild flavor and aroma; rich dark brown color; stable in alcohol,
tannin, and acid-rich environments
Soft drinks and other carbonated beverages, balsamic vinegar, coffee,
chocolate syrups, baked goods, cocoa extenders, pet foods, sauces,
soups, meat rubs, seasoning blends, and other flavorings
Wafer sticks containing caramel color are common in Greece, Indonesia
and other countries around the globe.
Color Intensity (Tinctorial Power) is defined as the absorbance of a
1 mg/mL (0.1%) solution (weight/volume) in water, measured using
a 1 cm light path at a wavelength of 610 nanometers (or
560 nm for tinctorial power). In this case, A stands for
absorbance and TS stands for total solids.
displaystyle text Color Intensity = frac A*100 TS
The color tone of the caramel color is also important. This is defined
by the Linner Hue Index, which is the measure of the color hue or red
characteristics of the caramel color. It is a function of the
absorbance of light of wavelengths 510 and 610 nm. In general,
the higher the Tinctorial Power, K0.56, the lower the Hue Index and
the lower the red tones.
Various other indices are in use around the world and there are
conversion factors between them.
Caramel color is a colloid. Though the primary function of caramel
color is for coloration, it also serves additional functions. In soft
drinks, it can function as an emulsifier to help inhibit the
formation of certain types of "floc" and its light protective quality
can aid in preventing oxidation of the flavoring components in bottled
JECFA has set the
Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of
Class I caramel color as "not specified"; that of Class II as
0–160 mg/kg body weight; that of Class III as
0–200 mg/kg body weight; and that of Class IV as
0–200 mg/kg body weight.
United States Food and Drug Administration
United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies and
regulates caramel color in Title 21 CFR § 73.85 as an approved color
additive exempt from certification. Unless a food has a standard of
identity, caramel color may be safely used in foods generally at
levels consistent with "good manufacturing practice" (GMP).
Caramel color has excellent microbiological stability. Since it is
manufactured under very high temperature, high acidity, high pressure,
and high specific gravity, it is essentially sterile, as it will not
support microbial growth unless in a dilute solution.
When reacted with sulfites, caramel color may retain traces of sulfite
after processing. However, in finished food products, labeling is
usually required only for sulfite levels above 10 ppm.
In 2010, the
International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS)
concluded that commercially produced caramel color has the same
toxicological properties as caramel produced by cooking or heating
sucrose, except for those prepared using ammonium (Class III and IV).
The IPCS has concluded that caramel color does not exhibit
carcinogenicity or mutagenicity, based on its studies. Additional
long-term studies support a conclusion that caramel colors are not
carcinogenic. While the US FDA, Canadian Health Products and
Food Branch and
European Food Safety Authority
European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have
found caramel color safe for use in food and beverages, California has
4-Methylimidazole (4-MeI), a compound formed in the manufacture
of Class III and IV caramel colors, in the state’s Proposition
65, thus legally including it in the category of chemicals
“known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity”.
According to the Food Chemicals Codex, 4-MeI in caramel color is
allowed up to 250 ppm on a color-adjusted basis, which means
250 ppm maximum for every 0.100 color absorbance of a 0.10%
solution at 610 nm. The exposure to 4-MeI at levels present
in Class III and IV caramel colors are not expected to be of concern
for two reasons. Firstly, 4-MeI does not appear to be genotoxic or
metabolized to a reactive metabolite. Secondly, carcinogenic doses of
4-MeI exceed estimates of exposure from the consumption of caramel
coloring by several thousand-fold.
Caramel coloring may be derived from a variety of source products that
are themselves common allergens, starch hydrolysates (from wheat),
malt syrup (in general derived from barley), or lactose (from milk).
As such, persons with known sensitivities or allergies to food
products are advised to avoid foods including generic caramel coloring
or first determine the source for the caramel coloring before
consuming the food.
Caramel color produced from corn or cane-based
materials would be unlikely to contain gluten due to the lack of
gliadin in the carbohydrates. North American and European
manufacturers mostly use glucose derived from corn or wheat to produce
caramel color, which is highly processed and is generally considered
Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) specification
for Caramel Colours 
U.S. Food and Drug Administration definition of Caramel, Code of
Federal Regulations 21 CFR 73.85
European Commission Directive 95/45/EC (26 July 1995) on food color
International Programme on Chemical Safety INCHEM Database 
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