The colour of our food is important not only from an aesthetic perspective but an evolutionary one. Psychologists have theorized that human adaptation and survival are due in part to being attracted to foods that appear “good” while rejecting foods that appear “bad.” Such connections develop in concert with the experiences associated with eating certain foods. If the experience with a red food is positive, individuals will gravitate towards items of that colour. The opposite is true when a food makes a person sick. Bright reds, blues and greens are naturally the most attractive colours, while brown and olive green are the least preferred.
The allure of vibrant-looking food has been recognized for millennia — candy makers in ancient Egypt added natural extracts to colour their sweet confections. Natural dyes were also used to enhance spices imported into Europe during the 16th century. Three centuries later, during the Industrial Revolution, as synthetic chemistry was evolving, unethical traders began adding inorganic compounds to food to, for example, restore the creamy appearance of milk that they had watered down. Other compounds such as red lead (Pb3O4) and vermillion (HgS) were used to enhance cheese and confections. Poisonous chemicals like arsenic, lead and mercury were also used to make food more alluring. By the turn of the mid-19th century chemical colour additives had found their way into a host of consumer goods, from ketchup to mustard and wine.
As shown by this brightly hued advertisement from 1969, M&T Products of Canada Ltd. in Hamilton, Ont. provided chemicals to industry and the food sector to ensure that products retained the all-important intense colours needed to attract consumers. Applications for M&T organometallic chemicals for stabilizing and catalyzing were myriad. The company promoted anhydrous stannous chloride (also known as Tin(II) chloride, or SnCl2) as a colour and flavour stabilizer for items like asparagus and frozen citrus fruits. Anhydrous stannous chloride (tradename Stannochlor) was also used by the pharmaceutical industry and as a tanning agent, a reagent in analytical chemistry and as a catalyst in organic reactions. For polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic goods, M&T chemicals made bottles appear crystal clear while providing flame retardant properties.
Inactive today, M&T was initially formed in 1962 in Florida and later headquartered in New Jersey. Regarded as a global leader in the manufacture of organic and inorganic chemicals, its products went by such trade names as BioMet, Durastrength, Metclad and Thermoguard. M&T Products of Canada was one of about a dozen subsidiaries worldwide. In 1977, the company was bought by Elf Aquitaine, a state-owned French oil firm that in 2000 merged with Total Fina to form TotalFinaElf. This company changed its name to Total in 2003.