What kind of food coloring is gluten free?

When it comes to gluten free diets, it’s important to know what ingredients are safe to consume. This includes something as seemingly innocuous as food coloring. Fortunately, most food colorings are naturally gluten free. Here’s a quick rundown of common food colorings and their gluten free status:

Natural Food Colorings

Many natural food colorings come from fruits, vegetables, and other edible plants that do not contain gluten. Some examples of naturally gluten free food colorings include:

  • Beet powder
  • Turmeric
  • Paprika
  • Annatto
  • Carrot juice
  • Red cabbage
  • Spinach powder

These natural gluten free food colorings are made by pulverizing or extracting the pigments from gluten-free plants. As long as the plants themselves don’t contain gluten, the coloring derived from them is safe for gluten free diets.

Artificial Food Colorings

Artificial food colorings are synthetic dyes that are created in a lab. The most common artificial food colorings include:

  • FD&C Red No. 40
  • FD&C Yellow No. 5
  • FD&C Yellow No. 6
  • FD&C Blue No. 1
  • FD&C Green No. 3

These artificial colorings are derived from petroleum and go through extensive processing and purification. This process removes any traces of gluten that may have been present in the raw ingredients. So artificial food colorings are generally considered gluten free.

Lake Pigments

Lake pigments are a class of food colorings made by bonding dyes to aluminum hydroxide. This makes the dyes water-insoluble. Common lake pigments include:

  • Red Lake 40
  • Blue Lake 1
  • Yellow Lake 5
  • Green Lake 3

The dyes used to produce lake pigments are gluten free. The aluminum hydroxide is an inorganic compound that does not contain gluten. So lake pigments are another type of food coloring that is naturally gluten free.

Caramel Coloring

Caramel coloring is made by heating carbohydrates, like corn syrup or sucrose. The browning reaction produces a dark food coloring. Different types of caramel color exist, classified as:

  • Class I – Plain caramel, made from sugars
  • Class II – Caustic sulfite caramel, made with sulfites
  • Class III – Ammonia caramel, made with ammonia
  • Class IV – Sulfite ammonia caramel, made with both sulfites and ammonia

All types of caramel coloring are naturally gluten free, since they are produced from corn, beets, molasses and other gluten free carbohydrates. The chemicals used in caustic sulfite caramel and ammonia caramel do not contain gluten either.

Natural Identical Food Colorings

Natural identical food colorings aim to simulate natural food colors using synthetic ingredients. They are chemically identical to colors found in nature but made artificially in a lab. Common natural identical food colorings include:

  • Beta-carotene
  • Annatto extract
  • Lycopene
  • Carminic acid
  • Carmine
  • Anthocyanins

Although these are synthetic compounds, they do not contain gluten. The fermentation and chemical processes used to produce them removes any trace of gluten from the raw ingredients. So natural identical food colorings are considered gluten free.

Coloring Foods With Real Food

In addition to lab-produced food coloring, many foods naturally contain colors that can be used to dye other foods. Common coloring foods include:

  • Beet juice/powder
  • Turmeric powder
  • Paprika powder
  • Carrot juice
  • Spinach juice
  • Pumpkin puree
  • Cocoa powder
  • Blueberry juice

Extracting colors from real foods is a great way to make natural gluten free food dyes. As long as the food itself doesn’t contain gluten, the coloring derived from it will be gluten free as well.

Potential Sources of Gluten in Food Colorings

Although most food colorings are naturally gluten free, there are a few things to watch out for:

  • Cross-contamination – Even if a food coloring does not contain gluten ingredients, cross-contamination is possible if it is produced in a shared facility that also handles gluten. Always check for “gluten free” certification on packaging.
  • Maltodextrin – This is a thickening agent sometimes used in powdered food coloring. Maltodextrin can be made from corn, rice, potato starch or wheat. Wheat-based maltodextrin contains gluten.
  • Dextrin – Like maltodextrin, this thickener can also come from wheat and contain traces of gluten. Be sure the dextrin used is gluten free.
  • Anti-caking agents – Powdered food colorings sometimes contain anti-caking agents to prevent clumping. Sources like wheat flour would contain gluten.

By choosing FDA-certified gluten free food colorings and avoiding products with questionable ingredients, you can enjoy worry-free coloring while on a gluten free diet.

Are Major Brands of Food Coloring Gluten Free?

Many major food coloring brands explicitly state that their products are gluten free right on the packaging. Here are some of the most common gluten free food coloring brands:

Brand Gluten Free Status
McCormick Labeled gluten free
Wilton Labeled gluten free
AmeriColor Labeled gluten free
Betty Crocker Labeled gluten free
Sauer Labeled gluten free
Chefmaster Labeled gluten free

Major brands understand the need for gluten free foods and avoid ingredients like wheat, rye, barley and malt that naturally contain gluten. Their manufacturing processes also minimize the risk of cross-contamination. But it’s still smart to double check labels when buying food coloring, even from reputable brands.

What About Food Coloring in Icing and Frosting?

Tubed icing, canned frosting and frosting mixes often contain food coloring to achieve the desired shade. Here’s what to look for when assessing gluten content in colored icing and frosting products:

  • Flour – Wheat flour is sometimes added to frosting for thickness. Avoid products listing “flour” without a gluten free label.
  • Malt flavoring/extract – Derived from barley, malt provides color and flavor but is not gluten free.
  • Dextrin – May come from wheat or another gluten containing grain.
  • Cookie crumble toppings – Can contain wheat/gluten ingredients.
  • Unsafe facilities – Cross-contamination is possible in facilities that also process wheat foods.

There are plenty of gluten free icing options made with corn starch, sugar and butter or shortening. Choosing an explicitly “gluten free” labeled product is the safest route for gluten free diets.

Is Food Coloring Safe on a Gluten Free Diet?

From a gluten perspective, most food colorings are perfectly safe for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. But there are some other health concerns to consider regarding synthetic food dyes:

  • Hyperactivity in children
  • Allergic reactions
  • Potential carcinogenic effects

Natural food colorings made from fruits, vegetables and spices are free of these health risks. So choosing beets, carrots, turmeric and other real foods for coloring is the healthiest option for gluten free diets.


Checking labels is always advisable, but most food colorings do not naturally contain gluten. Common food dyes, lakes, caramel colors and natural identicals are all gluten free. Brands that deal in gluten free foods take extra care to avoid cross-contamination. Coloring foods directly with fruit and vegetable juices provides the safest option for gluten free diets. While gluten free, artificial dyes may come with other health concerns. When preparing gluten free treats, opt for natural food coloring for the best nutrition and peace of mind.

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