Caramel Color

Caramel Color

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SuperHeroYOU2022 Logo Caramel Color Ingredients

What is Caramel Color?

Food companies use caramel color to make products appear the “right” color of tan or brown. It has no nutritional value and is only added to improve the appearance and appeal of the product. caramel color is usually made by mixing corn syrup with ammonia.


The FDA defines caramel color as the dark-brown liquid or solid material resulting from the carefully controlled heat treatment of food-grade carbohydrates, including dextrose, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, molasses, starch hydrolysates and fractions thereof, and sucrose. Food-grade acids, alkalis, and salts assist in caramelization during cooking. The acids used as caramel color ingredients include phosphoric acid, sulfuric acid, ammonium hydroxide, ammonium carbonate, and sulfite, to name a few. 

Caramel Color Ingredients: Hidden Ammonia & Corn Syrup in Food

For most of us, caramel evokes a memory of grandma cooking sugar at the stove or a chewy caramel candy at the store. Caramel color as an ingredient is not that at all, but using the word “caramel” makes it sound safe. In truth, caramel color is a compound with ingredients that include ammonia, corn syrup, sulfides, and sometimes, acids. 

Drawing increasing criticism in the last decade, caramel color is a common food additive that is linked to some adverse health effects. Like most artificial colors and flavors, it is included in many Big Food brands. By reading the ingredients, we can limit our consumption of this harmful ingredient and choose safer alternatives instead.

How is Caramel Color Harmful?

Caramel and caramelization sound delicious and benign, but the industrialized process of creating caramel color has questionable byproducts. It has no similarities to the caramel that we make on the stove in our kitchens.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest rates caramel color as one to avoid. The byproducts of the process used to make caramel coloring (particularly the version made with ammonia) include 2- and 4-methylimidazole. In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, concluded that these byproducts: 2- and 4-methylimidazole, are “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Yikes! And a study by the U.S. National Toxicology Program found “clear evidence of carcinogenic activity in male and female mice.” 

The State of California’s Environmental Protection Agency even lists ammonia-caramel coloring as a carcinogen under Proposition 65.

Many studies argue that the small amount of caramel color used will not significantly affect health. But we must ask, why are companies adding an unnecessary ingredient if there is even a POTENTIAL of it causing or increasing cancer risk?

Additionally, the carbohydrates/sugars used to make caramel color are mostly from conventional corn treated with glyphosate. Glyphosate is linked to the disruption of our immune systems, which may ultimately lead to certain cancers. Long-term exposure could lead to liver and kidney damage, reproductive and developmental problems, and possible risks for pregnant women and children. We say avoid products with glyphosate whenever you can.

Why is Caramel Color Used in So Many Foods?

The biggest question we must ask ourselves is: why is this ingredient in our food? Caramel color has NO nutritional value. It’s simply used to make food look more appealing. Big Food uses it to make various products appear the “right” color of tan or brown, mostly for marketing purposes.

Think of the classic brown color of certain sodas like coke or root beer, or the tan colors that make sweets look like they’ve been baked to perfection (they haven’t). Take syrup, for example. Cheap pancake syrups are generally made from corn syrup, which is transparent or light in color, so companies add caramel color to make consumers think, at first glance, that it is real maple syrup or at least a very similar product. 

Why does our food need to look like something it isn’t? Maybe because it’s so processed that Big Food needs to conceal the fact that it isn’t really food that we’d want to eat. Let’s eat REAL food instead.

SuperHeroYOU2022 Logo Caramel Color Ingredients

Products With Caramel Color to Avoid

The products with caramel color range from soda to cake to plant based meat. It is widely used in processed foods, condiments, and drinks. It is one of the most widely used food colorings.

Always read labels! Find brands that you trust. Bake and cook at home, where you can choose the ingredients or buy from brands that you trust.

Many commercially produced foods and beverages contain caramel, including:

  • Batters
  • Brown bread
  • Buns
  • Chocolate
  • Cookies
  • Cough drops
  • 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 
  • Sweets
  • Vinegar

How to Avoid Caramel Color

Like most additives and foods, the best way to avoid overconsumption of caramel coloring ingredients is to read labels, eat more whole foods, avoid processed foods, cook more at home, and buy from trusted brands. 

The best thing you can do is cook at home using real, whole ingredients and ensure your diet contains more fruits and vegetables than processed foods. At home, you can know what goes into your foods and baked goods, so you can make real caramel using a high quality sugar. 

Always read labels. Don’t buy foods that list “caramel color” as an ingredient. Go for products that have the least ingredients. Food products with real caramel will list caramel as an ingredient rather than caramel color. Remember that caramel color is nothing like caramel.