The food you buy may be hiding its true colors thanks to a little known pigmentation system used by the food industry.
Food manufacturers color many of the products we purchase to give it eye appeal.
Food manufacturers would rather keep this quiet according to Robert Brener, an associate professor in the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte.
"They don't want us to know all of our food is manipulated," Brener said.
While marketing strongly impacts the products we place in our shopping carts, on grocery store aisles, color is king.
"You dye a chicken breast for eye appeal because people shop with their eyes," Brener said.
Those golden plump, juicy packages of poultry in your grocer's meat department, for example, likely came from chickens fed with carotenoid-laced pellets.
Carotenoids are natural pigments that give our food a red, orange or yellow complexion.
So, why do food producers add coloring agents to meat products?
If you saw what real, commercially-produced poultry looked like without the added color, you probably wouldn't even pick the package up off the shelf.
"The meat would taste the same, but it would be very mild in color, very pale," Brener said.
In fact, the raw meat would be almost gray.
The color of egg yolks also influences the type of eggs consumers buy.
"People generally think the brighter the color, the fresher the egg," Brenner said.
A wild diet of green grass produces golden yokes. However, Brener says giving egg-laying hens dye in their feed is far less expensive than grass, and that's why many egg producers give their hens dye in their feed.
In the salmon industry, what most grocery labels won't tell shoppers is exactly where the salmon came from and whether or not its pink color is the result of added pigmentation.
"Farm-raised fish is fed puppy chow for fish, essentially," Brener said. "It's pelletized, its modified and engineered for fast growth and for color."
Most grocery store salmon isn't wild, but farm-raised. Collectively referred to as Atlantic Salmon, these farm-raised fish are bred in big pools of water, not in open Alaskan rivers as one might think.
Without a normal diet of krill, there's nothing to give fish its classic pink color.
"The natural state of unadulterated Atlantic salmon is a grey-white color," Brener said.
To get around this, fish farmers add a similar carotenoid-rich diet of pellets. Once digested, it turns a salmon's insides an entirely different shade.
These carotenoid dyes are actually not hazardous to us at the approved, food-safe levels because they are, after all, naturally occurring pigments.
Brener says foods that have been tinted should tell you something about its quality, especially when the shade mother nature made has to be manufactured and added back in to make the product appealing for shoppers to buy.
To avoid dyes in farm-raised salmon, look for the words "wild-caught" on the label, but expect to pay more for it.
As for poultry or eggs, choosing "free range" chickens and eggs isn't a guarantee that pigments haven't been added. Free-range simply tells you about the animal's habitat and not its diet. Call the farm or company and ask if you're curious.
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