With the controversy that sometimes surrounds food colorings, it’s easy to get lulled into the assumption that coloring food is a recent phenomenon. In fact it’s been practiced for millennia, especially among the Romans and Greeks who were renown for their manufacture of caramel color. Caramel color? Isn’t that what they put in soft drinks? Why yes it is, but as any ancient Roman will tell you, it can be used to color sauces, breads and beer too.
The process of making caramel color is fairly straightforward. All you need to make some is a little sugar and a little heat. Of course the ancients didn’t have much crystalline sugar lying around, but there was plenty of honey, which works every bit as well (actually even better). You simply heat it until the simple sugar molecules start to break apart, about 340 degrees, at which point it begins to cease being sugar and starts to become, well…nobody is quite sure what. But it looks good and it tastes good. What more do you need to know?
Today the making of caramel color happens via some very elaborate contraptions indeed, but the basic process is the same. Some kind of sugar or carbohydrate (long chain sugar) is exposed to acid (citric acid say) to break it into its simple sugar components. Then those components are heated until the bonds holding their atoms together break, and the pieces recombine into all kinds of molecular oddities, only a few of which are there even terms for.
But boy, is that stuff handy. It’s used in sauces, breads and beer of course, but also candy, condiments, soups, vinegars, hard liquor, cereals, baked goods, gravies, pancake syrup, seasoning mixes, fruit preserves, chocolates, liqueurs, pet food and (you knew this one) carbonated beverages. In fact carbonated beverage makers use so much caramel color, most manufacturers don’t even bother shipping it to them. They just build a factory next door and connect a pipe. Seriously. Bet the Romans never thought of that one.