Caramel colours: consumer exposure lower than previously estimated

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has revised its estimate of consumer exposure to three caramel colours (E 150a, E 150c, E 150d) used in a variety of foods and beverages. Using new data on the levels of three caramel colours (E 150a, E 150c, E 150d) as they are used in food and drinks as well as new consumption data, EFSA has concluded that consumer exposure to these colours is considerably lower than that expressed in the Authority’s 2011 scientific opinion. In most cases, the revised exposure estimate is below the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) established by EFSA’s experts in 2011. However, for toddlers and adults whose intake is very high, exposure may exceed the ADIs for the caramel E 150c. The main sources of exposure to E 150c are bakery wares for toddlers and alcoholic drinks for adults.

In its 2011 opinion, EFSA’s Scientific Panel on Additives and Nutrient Sources Added to Food (ANS Panel) carried out a complete re-evaluation of the safety of these three colours plus one other (E 150b) and established ADIs for their use in food. Given their similar chemical properties and uses in food, the ANS Panel also set a group ADI of 300 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day (mg/kg bw/day) for combined exposure to all four caramel colours (with a restrictive ADI of 100 mg/kg bw/day for E 150c within the group ADI). Based on the more limited scientific information available at the time, the 2011 opinion concluded that it was possible that the use of caramel colours in foods may lead to exposures in excess of the ADIs.

In its new statement, EFSA has refined its estimate of likely exposure to caramel colours in food based on new data provided by industry in 2012 on use levels in products ready to be consumed and consumption data available in the EFSA Comprehensive European Food Consumption Database. Estimates of consumer exposure through the diet to the three caramel colours individually is considerably lower than in the previous exposure assessment and – with the exception of E 150c for toddlers and adults with high consumption levels – no longer exceed the ADIs. The combined exposure estimates of the four caramel colours do not exceed the group ADI of 300 mg/kg bw/day for any population group.

This latest work reviewing consumer exposure to caramel colours used in foods and beverages complements EFSA’s previous risk assessment on these colours carried out in the context of the Authority’s on-going re-evaluation of all food colours currently authorised in the EU. EFSA’s scientific advice will help to inform decisions of EU policy makers in relation to food colours.

Notes to editors
  • Caramel colours are added to food to give a deeper shade of brown and are widely used in a variety of foods including non-alcoholic flavoured drinks, confectionary, soups, seasonings and alcoholic drinks such as beer, cider and whisky.
  • Caramel colours are complex mixtures of compounds produced by carefully controlled heat treatment of carbohydrates (sugars). They are classified into four categories depending on the reagent used in their manufacture (ammonia and/or sulphite or no reagent), and generally known by the E numbers E150a, E150b, E150c, and E150b.
  • The Acceptable Daily Intake is the amount of a substance that people can consume on a daily basis during their entire lifetime without any appreciable risk to health. See EFSA’s Understanding Science video: Chemicals in food – establishing safe levels of use
  • The EFSA Comprehensive Food Consumption Database is a source of information on food consumption across the European Union (EU). It contains detailed consumption data for a number of EU countries. The database plays a key role in the evaluation of the risks related to possible hazards in food in the EU and, combined with occurrence levels for these hazards in foods, allows estimates of consumer exposure, a fundamental step in EFSA’s risk assessment work.
  • See Regulation EU 257/2010 of 25 March 2010 setting up a programme for the re-evaluation of approved food additives in accordance with Regulation EC 1333/2008 on food additives.
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