The Color Caramel

In 1880, Charles Sethness, a 25 year old self-educated immigrant, started a flavor and syrup business in Chicago. Within a few years, he was heating sugar in iron kettles to produce caramel color for whiskey. Today, his grandsons and great grandsons run the Sethness Products Company, the world’s leading supplier of caramel color. Although the single largest use of caramel color is soft drinks, it is also used in an incredible number of other foods.

Today, caramel color is manufactured by heating corn syrup, usually under pressure, in large stainless steel reactors. Coloring is a tricky business since food color must be stable for up to a year, under very harsh conditions of acidity, salinity and carbonation. I can remember finding a can of Pepsi at the back of a cupboard where it had hidden for several years. When I poured it into a glass, it was absolutely clear and quite flat. I guess the caramel color and the fizz gave up. There are four classes of caramel color based on chemical additives:

What do I mean by "very high sulfites"? How about 2,000 ppm! The Brimstone Demons are very proud. Fortunately, caramel color is quite intense and it doesn’t take much to color a food. But even in small doses, caramel color can drive the effective sulfur oxide content of a food into hundreds of micrograms. When caramel color is used, it is always listed on the food label. So you know it’s in there but you don’t know the class and corresponding sulfur level. To bring order to this scramble, I have defined five types of caramel color based on their application.

Caramel Color Table
(based on the total weight of the colored food)

Type Code Application SOx ppm
Liquids CCL Beverages, syrups, preserves 0.34 ppm
Semi-solid CCS Soups, gravies, sauce, noodles 0.42
Bakery CCB Dark cakes, breads, cookies 1.7
Condiment CCC Relish, marinades, condiments 3.4
Powders CCP Dry seasoning powders 6.3

Normally, SOx values are based on the weight of the sulfited ingredient. However, the SOx values in the above table are based on the total weight of the food that is colored. This is because it is hard to estimate the tiny weight of colorant from a food label. The table makes this easier since all you need to know is the weight of the colored food. Let’s say you want to eat a slice of double dark chocolate cake weighing 40 grams. If you do, you will also eat about 40 x 1.7 = 68 micrograms of effective sulfur oxide. If the cake is lighter in color, you might want to cut that number in half. That’s all there is to using the table.

The caramel color table is a severe simplification of the real world. It will not tell you the actual amount of sulfur preservatives in the food, only the average over many foods. For instance, the chocolate cake could actually have half or twice the average value. It could be even worse. So this table just gets your calculation into the right ballpark, as sports-loving scientists like to say. The table was created by statistically averaging manufacturer’s recommendations then applying a scaling factor determined from headache tests.

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