Candy Experiments: Chromatography of Candy Dyes

Candy Chromatography Color Separation:
Candy Science Fun to Dye For!

from Loralee Leavitt, author of Candy Experiments and Candy Experiments 2

Looking for a fun educational activity for kids? Candy chromatography will be a hit, plus can be done with materials you may already have in your house!

Chromatography is the scientific term for separation and analysis of components in a mixture when they are absorbed, as on a piece of paper or filter or gel or other substance. For our experiment, we used a coffee filter for this absorbent medium.  

The candy shell coating on small candies like M&Ms, Skittles, and Sixlets contain dyes - often noted in ingredients as "artificial coloring" or FD&C with a number. However, to create one color for the shell, often a blend of colors is used. 

When a child mixes several paint colors, everything eventually turns brown. This is similar to how the brown candy coating on an M&M is created using edible dyes.   

chromatography girl painting
Chromatography Colorful M&M's

As you know, candy is mixed with dyes to create one color. In our experiment, you will un-mix these colors to see the individual dyes that make up your colored candy. Here will are reverse engineering the brown colored candy coating.

Materials Needed

  • colored candy (we chose brown M&Ms)
  • a plate
  • a coffee filter 
  • scissors
  • a glass of water
chromatography Water on M&M
Step 1
chromatography M&M on Filter
Step 2

Experiment Steps

1. Place a drop of water on a plate. Please the brown M&M on this water drop. You want to let the color dissolve. 

2. While the color is dissolving, cut a rectangular strip out of the coffee filter paper. Use the wet M&M to paint a spot of color on this filter strip, approximately a half-inch from the bottom of the filter.  

3. Fill a small glass with a half inch of water. Next, put the filter strip in the glass so that the bottom  in the water, but the color spot is just above the water. Fold the paper over the top of the glass to hold it in place. (You can also hold the paper in place with a rubber band or a clothespin.)

4. Wait several minutes, and then take the filter paper out and lay it on a white surface so that you can see the colors easier. Can you see different colors spread across your filter?

chromatography Water with Dyed Filter
Step 3
chromatography separated color streaks on filter
Step 4

Try this simple and fun experiment with other deep colors such as purple, green, brown, and black. Try to predict which colors you will see on your filter. 

Many kinds of candy are colored with a mix of colors, especially dark colors, like brown and black M&Ms and jelly beans. This chromatography experiment separates these dyes, carrying them up the paper as they dissolve. Dyes that dissolve faster get carried further up the paper, separating into streaks.

Look for these colors on other labels. Mysteriously, this brown mix of dyes may show up in places you wouldn’t expect, such as “chocolate” pudding and “chocolate” cupcake treats.

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