By definition, organic pickles must not contain any artificial colors (nor chemical additives or pesticides, while we’re on the subject).
In contrast, mainstream pickle manufacturers often use a synthetic yellow food coloring known as tartrazine to achieve that familiar gherkin color. It’s listed as Yellow 5 on food labels, and it’s also responsible for processed macaroni and cheese’s frightening neon hue.
U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologists have been researching why commercially packed pickles can turn red and spoil. They recently identified a key chemical culprit: an interaction between tartrazine and the normal lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacilli) that form during the pickling process.
The USDA has also determined that the spoiled Lactobacilli have an interesting environmental application: They can help clean up synthetic “azo” dyes found in textile-industry wastewater. While many of these red, orange and yellow dyes are regarded as nontoxic, research shows some may be capable of mutating into carcinogens.
“If food-grade Lactobacilli capable of degrading a range of azo dyes were identified, they might be organisms of choice for waste-treatment applications,” says USDA lead researcher Ilenys Pérez-Díaz, PhD.
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Photos: Maggie Mudd, Peggy Greb/USDA