Food colors are classified as natural if they are extracted from vegetal, microbial, animal or mineral sources and as artificial if they are produced in a laboratory. They are added to food and drink but also to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to make the products more attractive. The use of these additives, especially artificial ones, has risen more than 5-fold in the last 60 years, with a consequent increase in the waste waters resulting from industrial and urban effluents. Concern for human health and the aquatic environment is consequently increasing but the toxicity of food colorings on flora and fauna remains poorly studied. In this framework, we tested the effects of two commercially available food colors, the natural cochineal red (E120) and the artificial Ponceau red (E124), on three model organisms, Cucumis sativus, Artemia salina and Danio rerio, that occupy diverse positions in the trophic pyramid. The organisms were exposed to the same concentration suggested for preparing food (650 mg per 500 mL milk or cream); the health of the organisms and the alterations induced were investigated. The data collected indicate that both colorings are toxic and that E124 causes damage to all three model organisms while E120 is apparently safer for Danio but induces alterations in Cucumis and Artemia. The overall results clearly demonstrate that our habit of artificially coloring the world around us is very unsafe for the aquatic flora and fauna and that natural is not necessarily better than artificial.
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