HEALTH

Colour Blind: How The Unicorn Food Craze Has Fooled Us All

The use of artificial colourants may cause negative health effects.

06/06/2017 1:30 PM AEST | Updated 30/06/2017 9:15 AM AEST

The unicorn craze has succeeded in drawing the mythical creature out of the story books and into our everyday lives.

Multi-coloured and visually stunning, unicorn foods are the latest trend sweeping across social media and into our eateries. Even Starbucks got on the bandwagon, with their pink and blue coloured 'unicorn frappuccino'.

In an endeavour to create aesthetically beautiful foods, colourants are being added to what seems like nearly everything. Whether it be a rainbow bagel, multi-coloured sushi roll, or a brightly-coloured cupcake, these unconventionally coloured foods have intrigued people around the globe.

It turns out, however, that eating a rainbow cheese toastie or sipping a bright blue coffee may be just as controversial as the science behind the unicorn food craze. While science has proven that eating large amounts of manufactured foods has negative health effects, the exact results of eating too many food colourants are still being explored.

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Bright and colourful. Definitely a unicorn.

Luciana Torquati PhD is a nutritionist and research fellow at the University of Queensland. She said that unicorn foods with artificial food colourants have no positive health effects.

"My opinion is that adding food colouring might make these sorts of foods look more appealing, if you wish, but they don't have any nutritional value," Torquati told HuffPost Australia.

"In addition, you are eating things that have molecules that might be harmful and there is a chance they can create food allergies or could be carcinogenic in the future, as some studies suggest."

While scientists know food colouring and other manufactured substances can have negative health effects for humans, the possible long-term problems with consuming excessive food colourants are still being assessed.

"It is very controversial. The main problem, I think, is that many organisations highlight that we don't know the cumulative effects," Torquati said.

"If you go to the supermarket and check the labels of chips or confectionery or any packaged food, you will find that, by law, the manufacturer has to declare the name of the food colourants, but you won't find the amount [of food colouring] there is. So as a consumer, you cannot keep track, let's say, of how much red dye you are getting because it is not written."

Having a healthy diet is not as complicated as we think. We just have to avoid, as much as we can, processed foods.

Torquati cites the lack of packaging information as only part of the problem. The inability of scientists to keep track of a person's eating and sleeping patterns every day, to determine possible long-term effects, has also lead to inconclusive data.

"In the mice studies you can control exactly what each mouse eats, so you can control exactly the dose you are giving. Whereas in human studies, it is very hard to follow a group of people and assess exactly what they eat every day."

Part of the reason for this difficultly in tracking peoples' food colourant consumption is the fact that the use of artificial colours is so widespread, mainly because they are significantly cheaper and easier to use than their natural counterparts.

Colouring food with naturally occurring colours from beetroots, apples or spices like turmeric, for example, requires time, money and some degree of skill. While most of us would try this out, at least as a one-off cooking venture within our homes, it is impractical on a large industrial scale.

"It doesn't really impact you spending 10 cents or $5 [on food colouring], but when we talk about the industrial production, then the difference in price is massive and that is when the food industry prefers using synthetic colourant," Torquati said.

Vincent Kessler / Reuters
Mass produced colouring is easier and cheaper for the food industry.

We know artificial food colouring may be bad for us, so why don't we avoid it altogether, even if that is becoming harder in the age of unicorn food? The fact is that most Australians eat a lot of manufactured foods, and it could be a habit that is hard to break.

"If you look at the most recent Australia Healthy Survey or even if you look at the Australian Institute of Welfare and Health Report, you will find that the majority of Australians get at least 30 percent of their intake from discretionary foods. But when you look at the dietary guidelines, this group should be consumed rarely, which is why they are called 'discretionary.'"

It is hard to believe that such good looking food could possibly have carcinogenic or allergenic affects, but it doesn't mean that you have to do away with unicorn foods completely. Making the switch to natural food colourants from artificial ones is Torquati's tip for getting fruit and veggies into your diet and avoiding the negative effects of synthetic food colourants, all at the same time.

It is very easy to play around with different fruits and vegetables and use their naturally occurring colours to make mundane foods a little more 'unicorn'. Using turmeric or saffron to create yellow colours, beetroot for reds and apples, and mint and spinach for green hues are just a few examples. You could even make your very own natural blue sports drink with blueberries and soda.

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"You don't need dyes," Torquati said. "If you want red gnocchi, you can just blend sundried tomatoes and then add this to the gnocchi dough and then suddenly you will have red gnocchi."

Essentially, keeping to a healthy diet is all about trying to introduce as many natural elements as possible, while limiting the mass-produced, synthetic foods. Just like any other naughty snack, unicorn foods should be consumed in moderation.

"Having a healthy diet is not as complicated as we think. We just have to avoid, as much as we can, processed foods. They are really sweet and people really like them, and you can have them once in a while as a treat, not every day."

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