What is Caramel Color (E150) in food: Uses, Safety, Side effects

OverviewProperty | Uses| Safety | Side effects15 FAQs

Caramel color, also known as caramel coloring, is one of the oldest and most used colorings in food and beverage with the European food additive number E150. Its color ranges from pale yellow to amber to dark brown and can create several colors when added in foods. Generally, it is gluten-free and vegan. 

In this article, I’m going to break down EVERYTHING you need to know about this ingredient and provide you with several authority resources that’ll give you a broader understanding of it.

What is Caramel Color?


According to FDA 21CFR73.85, it is the dark-brown liquid or solid material resulting from the carefully controlled heat treatment of the food-grade carbohydrates.          

What is Caramel Color made from?

There are two categories of raw materials for the manufacturing of this color, carbohydrates and reactants.

1. Sources of carbohydrates

Food grade nutritive sweeteners which are the monomers glucose and fructose and/or polymers thereof, e.g. glucose syrups, sucrose, and/or invert syrups, and dextrose are the sources of carbohydrates.

2. Reactants

The approved reactants such as acids, alkalis, salts, ammonium and sulfite, which are used to promote caramelization.

How to make Caramel Color?

Four types of this color are all produced from carefully controlled heat treatment of food grade carbohydrates with food grade reactants or not. The process also called caramelization.

4 Types of Caramel Color

The joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) has divided it into four classes based on different reactants (catalysts) in the manufacturing process, simply named class I, II, III & IV and with the corresponding E number E150a, 150b, 150c and 150d.

1. Class I: E150a 

No ammonium or sulfite reactants. Also called caustic or plain caramel color.

2. Class II: E150b

With Sulfite reactant, but no ammonium. Also called caustic sulfite caramel. With sulfite compounds (sulfurous acid, potassium sulfite, potassium bisulfite, sodium sulfite and sodium bisulfite); no ammonium compounds are used.

3. Class III: E150c

With ammonium reactant, but no sulfite. Also called ammonia caramel. In the presence of ammonium compounds (ammonium hydroxide, ammonium carbonate, ammonium hydrogen carbonate and ammonium phosphate); no sulfite compounds are used.

4. Class IV: E150d

With both sulfite and ammonia reactants. Also called sulfite ammonia caramel. In the presence of both sulfite and ammonium compounds.

What is Caramel Color made of?

As caramelization is a complex and poorly understood process that produces hundreds of chemical products, so caramel color is a mixture and there are no specific compositions in it.  

The caramelization reaction is the browning of sugar during the cooking process. During the process, carbohydrates are incompletely decomposed, dehydrated and polymerized at high temperatures, and the degree is closely related to temperature and the type of carbohydrate

For example, sucrose forms glucose and fructan at 160°C. Isotopecane (C12H24O10)n is formed at 185 to 190°C, and it is polymerized to caramel alkane (C24H36O18)n and caramel olefins (C36H50O25)n at about 200°C, and caramel alkyne (C24H36O13)n will be generated at 200°C or more. 

The final product after caramelization is a mixture of the above various dehydrated polymers.



Dark brown to black liquids or solids with an odor of burnt sugar.

Color strength

The Color intensity or tinctorial powder is used to describe the color strength of Caramel color. 

Tinctorial power, K0.560: it is defined as the absorbance of a 0.1% weight/volume solution measured through a 1 cm light path at a wavelength of 560 nanometers using a high quality spectrophotometer. 

The higher the Tinctorial Power, K0.560, the darker the Caramel Color. (1)

Color intensity: it is defined as the absorbance of a 0.1% (w/v) solution of caramel color solids in water in a 1-cm cell at 610 nm. (2)

Hue index

Hue index is one way to measure the redness of caramel color. It is a function of the absorbance measured at wavelengths of 510 and 610 nanometers. The higher this index, the more red of caramel color. (3)

  • Class I: hues range from yellow to red-brown
  • Class II: hues range from very yellow to dark red-brown
  • Class III: hues range from a light brown to dark red-brown.
  • Class IV: a light brown to deep black-brown.

Ionic charge

Caramel color carries ionic (electrochemical) colloidal charges, positive, negative or neutral depending on the manufacturing processing. Most of the caramel color consumed today is negatively charged. Generally, the application is related to the ionic charges.


  • In water: soluble in either liquid or powdered form.
  • In oil: disperse in an oil system resulting in pastes or emulsions.

What are the Uses of Caramel Colour?

This food colorant has been used in foods and beverages for over 150 years and is globally regulated as a color additive. Also, we can find its application in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics to impart a color from brown to red.

Food & Beverage

Generally, the following foods that may contain caramel color: 

  • Bakery
  • Beer & spirit
  • Beverage
  • Alcohol
  • Meat
  • Sauce & seasoning
  • Confectionary

And let’s see the common uses per different types of its food grade.

  1. Class I (E150a), has a slight negative colloidal charge. It does not contain 4-MeI or sulfites, generally used in bread, spirits, dairy, beverages and confections.
  2. Class II (E150b), has a negative colloidal charge and without 4-MeI. Commonly used in tea, whiskey, and brandy.
  3. Class III (E150c) has a positive colloidal charge and used to color soy sauce and beer. 
  4. Class IV (E150d), has a strong negative charge over a wide pH range, and widely used in the soft drink industry.

The specific application is complicated, usually, there are several classes can be used in a field.


There are many considerations in choosing the right caramel color for the production of beverage, such as color, PH, Vitamin C content, packaging materials (protecting the colorant) and so on.

Soft Drinks/Colas: Class IV

Soft drinks normally carry negatively-charged molecules and therefore, a negatively-charged caramel color should be selected for soft drinks.

Class IV would be suitable as it is negatively-charged and with a wide range of color intensities and shades — from reddish-brown to nearly black.

Beer: Class III 

Beer requires a caramel color with a strong positive ionic charge to avoid any reaction with protein. Class III has a positive ionic charge that is stable in beer and would not precipitate out into the beverage over time. 


Per “European Commission database for information on cosmetic substances and ingredients”, caramel color functions as colorant and masking agents in cosmetic and personal care products. (4)


Caramel can also be used for coloring in pharmaceuticals. (5)

Is Caramel Color Safe to eat?

Yes, its safety when used as a food additive has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), as well as other authorities.


It is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) when used in accordance with good manufacturing practice. (6)


Caramel colours are colouring substances authorised as food additives in European Union (EU) in accordance with Annex II and Annex III to Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 on food additives and categorized as “Colours” (7)

Safety revaluation in 2011

After the study on genotoxicity, carcinogenicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity and others, EFSA established a group ADI (acceptable daily intake) of 300 mg/kg body weight/day for four caramel colours (E 150a, E 150b, E 150c, E 150d) and an individual ADI of 100 mg/kg bw/day for E 150c (Class III Ammonia Caramel) due to immunotoxicity of one of its constituent in 2011. (8)


It is listed in Group II: Food colours authorised at quantum satis. The following food may contain it (9):

  • Dairy products and analogues  
  • Edible ices 
  • Fruit and vegetables 
  • Confectionery 
  • Cereals and cereal products 
  • Bakery wares 
  • Meat 
  • Fish and fisheries products 
  • Salts, spices, soups, sauces, salads and protein products 
  • Foods intended for particular nutritional uses 
  • Beverages 
  • Ready-to-eat savouries and snacks 
  • Desserts 
  • Food supplements 

Food Standards Australia New Zealand 

It is approved ingredient named as caramel I, II, III and IV with the corresponding code number 150a/b/c/d in Australia and New Zealand. (10)


Functional class: Food additives, color. (11)

What are the possible Side Effects?

It is common that sometimes consumers have questions if the ingredient caramel color is bad for our health and what are the dangers. People are always afraid that the most possible health problem is regarding 4-MEI which in caramel color that may cause cancer.

Let’s see the details of 4-MEI and other possible side effects.

What is 4-MEI?

The full name of 4-methylimidazole, which is formed as an impurity by the interaction of ammonia with reducing sugars, occurring in manufacturing of both Class III Ammonia Caramel and Class IV Sulphite Ammonia Caramel. 

4-MEI may also form when coffee beans are roasted and when meats are roasted or grilled. 

Does Caramel Color cause Cancer?

California Prop 65 listed 4 Methylimidazole (4-MeI) as a possible carcinogen in caramel color since 2011 as lung cancer in male mice and female mice was found with 4-MEI exposure in the study of National Toxicology Program [NTP] in 2007. 


FDA said there is no solid proof to believe the danger of 4-MEI caused from the use of caramel coloring in food. To ensure the safety of using caramel color in food, the FDA is reviewing all available data and will take more action. (12)


JECFA said that the toxicity of 4-MEI was no longer a cause for concern since the concentration is limited in the specifications and the exposure to 4-MEI as a result of use of Class III and Class IV Caramel colour at the levels foreseen would be substantially below the levels found to induce neurological effects in a range of animal species in 1986. (13)


EFSA said the anticipated dietary exposure of child and adult populations of 4-MEI is not of concern and the carcinogenic effect of 4-MEI seen in mice in the NTP study was thresholded, and could be considered to be a NOAEL (no observed adverse effect level) for these effects in 2011.

Coca Cola

As Coca Cola said, caramel color helps give Coca-Cola its unique look and taste in its soda products:

  • Barq’s
  • Coca-Cola Zero Sugar
  • Diet Coke
  • Gold Peak Peach Tea
  • Pibb Xtra

And it says “The FDA says you would have to drink 1,000+ cans of soda a day to match the amounts used in studies that showed health concerns with 4-MEI.”

Is it Toxic?

An updated safety study in 2017, which published in Food Chem Toxicol in 2018, showed that no observable adverse effect levels (NOAEL) have been identified for all classes in toxicokinetics, genotoxicity, subchronic toxicity, carcinogenicity, and reproductive/developmental toxicity studies. 

Other possible side effects may occur

  • Mild diarrhea
  • Reduced body weight gain associated with reduced food and fluid consumption
  • Pigmentation of mesenteric lymph nodes
  • Enlargement of the caecum
  • Reduced urinary output associated with increases in specific gravity of the urine
  • Increases in caecal and kidney weights

Pregnant and breastfeeding

It is generally safe, better consult your doctor.


As a request from the buyers and end users, please be assured that caramel coloring cannot be derived from common allergens, such as starch hydrolysates (from wheat), malt syrup (in general derived from barley), or lactose (from milk). 

And the manufacturers always have an allergen free list for the buyers.

Frequently asked questions

Is it Natural or Artificial?

Although this food color is always claimed nature as it is derived from ingredients that can be found in nature. But it is not simply called natural.

As known to all, caramel colours are all made from edible nutritive sweeteners, which are heated under controlled conditions and they’re physically and chemically modified after the process. So it can not be considered “natural” according to the definition of nature that occurring in nature or being directly derived from substances occurring in nature. 

Also, it is not “artificial” as they are not chemically synthesized. 

But FDA indicates that it can be named as artificial color. The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. (14)

Is it Vegan?

Yes, as mentioned above, it is vegan as the raw material used and manufacturing process without the use of animal matter or products derived from animal origin. As a food ingredient, it is considered vegan and vegetarians can eat it.

Is it Halal?

Yes, it is halal and we can find several China manufacturers certificated with MUI halal for class I, III and IV.

Is it Kosher?

Yes, it is kosher and we can find some suppliers certificated with pareve.

Is it Gluten free?

Yes, it is gluten free or without gluten as comply with the conditions listed by the FDA that it does not contain wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains. (15)

Why Use Caramel Coloring?

It improves the appeal of food by imparting a good color. If food looks good, people may try it.

Is Caramel Color a Flavor?

No, it is not a fragrance or flavor, it is just a colorant agent. Most of the foods are colored with little caramel, which generally has no significant effect on the flavor of the final product.

Is Caramel Color a Sugar?

No, it is obtained after heat treatment of sugar.

Does Caramel Color contain Corn?

It does not contain corn but may derive from corn. 

Does Caramel Color have Dairy?

No, it does not contain milk or comes from dairy.

What Are Caramel Color Substitutes?

Firstly it depends on what color you need and the application. And then the preferred natural color or synthesized one or the mixtures. Such as Annatto, Beta-carotene, Grape skin extract, Red 40, Yellow 5 can be the replacement which is also used in soft drinks.

Is there Caramel Color in Coffee?

Yes, powdered caramel colour may be used in coffee. As coffee has its own brown to dark color, caramel color is not used in some products.

Does Caramel Color have Red 40?


Can Caramel Color Be Organic?

Yes, some manufacturers have organic products.

Is Caramel Color the Same As Caramel?

The term “caramel” is often used to describe confections and flavours made from caramelized sugar. And sometimes it refers to caramel color. The term “caramel color” only describes the color additive.


Now you may have a knowledge of the color additive – Caramel color (E150), from the following aspects:

  • Manufacturing process
  • Four types (E 150a, b, c and d) classified on the basis of the types of reactants used or not.
  • The differences in properties and uses among the four types.
  • Uses in food & beverage 
  • Safety
  • Side effects focus on 4-MEI, the impurities produced in both Class III and Class IV caramel color.
  • FAQs: is it natural or artificial, vegan, gluten free and other 12 common questions. 

What kinds of food labels have you found this ingredient in? Let me know by leaving a comment below.


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