Food Dyes

By: Co+op

Did you know there's a good reason we're drawn to richly colored foods—deep red apples and golden yellow butter, for example? Seems there are some deeply rooted self-preservation instincts at work, leftover from the days when humans relied on their keen senses to determine if a food was nutritious—or even safe—to eat. In today's world, those same instincts may be part of what leads your preschooler to those brightly colored sprinkles on her cupcake!

Whatever the reason, color is one way to enhance the enjoyment of foods. Not all colorings are created equal, of course. In 1938, the FDA approved a host of synthetic dyes (originally derived from coal tar but now derived from petroleum) for use in foods. Since then, researchers have identified links between many food dyes and hyperactivity, allergic reactions, and cancers. And so the number of approved dyes has dwindled, though the use of dyes overall has increased five-fold since 1955.The Center for Science in the Public Interest has been working to get the FDA to ban the use of all synthetic food dyes, pointing to what they call a "rainbow of risks."

What to use in place of all those FD&C numbers like Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6—commonly found in breakfast cereals, drinks, salad dressings, desserts, and many other foods? The healthy alternative is natural foods (organic foods, in fact, cannot contain artificial dyes) which may color foods with a variety of natural ingredients like vegetable extracts, spices, and fruit juices.

You can use similar ingredients to color your own recipes. Simply choose natural foods that are so saturated that they seem to have color to spare—like beets, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, red cabbage, herbs like hibiscus, and spices like turmeric, annatto, and saffron. You can add these ingredients directly to your dish (turmeric will impart a lovely yellow/orange hue to your grain), or you can juice or puree them first (berry or beet juice will distinctly color that smoothie). For egg dying, see our Naturally Dyed Eggs guide.

Keep in mind that colorings made from foods will impart foods with flavor, too, so go easy and experiment with taste as well as color. And don't expect scientific accuracy. That cupcake frosting might be pink this round and purplish the next—it's all part of the fun of natural food coloring.