Fancy an orange soda?
In Britain, by law it will be made with natural dyes coming from things like pumpkin and carrot extract.
In the United States, that soda will contain synthetic Yellow 6 and Red 40.
Why the dichotomy? It wasn’t because of conspiracy theorists or health nuts over there who insist on organic.
No, the UK requires these coloring substitutes because of alarming scientific studies. Research so compelling in fact, that it was persuasive enough to finally put a lid on the years of big money which was battling against a legal crackdown.
Despite those special interests of the food industry, it just wasn’t enough to overcome what the research was suggesting.
As a result, the following colors have been banned since 2010:
- allura red (E129)
- carmoisine (E122)
- ponceau 4R (E124)
- quinoline yellow (E104)
- sunset yellow FCF (E110)
- tartrazine (E102)
Straight from the horse’s mouth, the UK Food Standards Agency, here is the reason for why they’re illegal (1):
“…consumption of mixes of certain artificial food colours and the preservative sodium benzoate could be linked to increased hyperactivity in some children.”
Evidence of neurological dangers
A randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled study was published a decade ago in what is arguably the most prestigious peer reviewed medical journal, The Lancet (2). It involved:
- 153 kids who were 3 years old
- 144 kids who were 8-9 years old
Each child received a drink containing artificial food coloring and sodium benzoate, in one of two versions (mix A or B). There was also a group given placebo versions without them.
“Mix A had a significantly adverse effect compared with placebo in global hyperactivity aggregate for all 3-year-old children…”
“8/9-year-old children showed a significantly adverse effect when given mix A or mix B…”
Now that study wasn’t exactly breaking news. A study from four years prior looked at 1,873 children for the same suspicion (3).
Even that was old news, too. Over 40 years ago – in 1973 – at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association, Dr. Benjamin Feingold presented research suggesting artificial food dyes might be linked with pediatric hyperactivity and related learning disorders (4).
That’s just a sampling of the research. It took decades until the United Kingdom felt compelled to act.
If their government doesn’t deem them safe enough for their children, do you think they’re safe enough for yours?
But wait, you say “I don’t see those colors listed on the ingredients label of my cake mix.”
That’s correct, because the United States (as well as other countries) use different names for the exact same chemicals.
While food coloring names can differ by country, they’re 100% identical molecularly. Here’s a rundown of each and the name which is used for it.
|List of FDA Approved Food Dyes|
|Colour Index International||Source||U.S. Name||European Union Name||Other Names||US Banned?||UK Banned?||EU Banned?|
|19140||Coal tar or petroleum||FD&C Yellow 5||E102||Tartrazine, Acid Yellow 23, Food Yellow 4||No||Yes||Allowed with warning label, ban in Norway, Austria, Germany prior to EU, where it is allowed|
|15985||Petroleum||FD&C Yellow 6||E110||Sunset Yellow FCF, Orange Yellow S, Aluminum Lake, Food Yellow 3||No||Yes||Allowed with warning label, ban in Norway prior to EU, where it is allowed|
|45430||Fluorone||FD&C Red No. 3||E127||Erythrosine, Food Red No. 3, Acid Red 51||Partly||No||Ban in Norway prior to EU, where it is allowed|
|16035||Coal tar or petroleum||FD&C Red No. 40||E129||Allura Red AC, Food Red 17, Red 40 Lake, Red 40 Aluminum Lake||No||Yes||Ban in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland Sweden prior to EU, where it is allowed|
|73015||Coal tar, the molecule is in the Indigofera tinctoria shrub but that natural source is no longer used||FD&C Blue No. 2||E132||Indigo Carmine, Indigotine, Acid Blue 74, Food Blue 1||No||No||Ban in Norway prior to EU, where it is allowed|
|42090||Petroleum||FD&C Blue No. 1||E133||Brilliant Blue FCF, Acid Blue 9, Blue #1 Lake||No||No||Ban in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland prior to EU, where it is allowed|
|42053||Petroleum||FD&C Green No. 3||E143||Fast Green FCF, Food Green 3, Green 1724||No||Yes||Yes|
Is red 40 banned in the UK? Yep. But the FDA assures us it’s safe. Hmm…
Regardless of whether or not your feeding those cupcakes and Christmas cookies to kids, how about your own health?
Aside from the artificial red food colors (and others) being reportedly linked to ADHD, are there other side effects you should be concerned about?
Officially, no. They’re completely safe and non-toxic. That’s the official status.
However, there have been plenty of studies over the years which haven’t exactly painted these chemicals in the most positive light.
There has been research going back nearly 40 years suggesting that yellow #5 may have an (5):
“exacerbating effect in chronic urticaria and asthma sufferers”
FD&C Blue #2 has also been accused of doing the same, though it seems Tartrazine and asthma is the one you hear most about in regards to purported respiratory problems (6).
Does food color cause cancer?
They currently are not classified as carcinogens in humans.
Though humor yourself and take a gander at what has reportedly happened in some animal studies.
|Coloring Agent||Allergies||Carcinogenic Compounds||Cancer In Rats||Cancer In Mice||Other Side Effects|
|Yellow 5||Yes||Benzidine, 4-amino-biphenyl||Only one “good study” conducted, no tumors||Only mouse study was too short and used too few mice||Genotoxicity in 6 out of 11 studies. Child hyperactivity.|
|Yellow 6||Yes||Benzidine, 4-amino-biphenyl||Adrenal gland and testicular cancer||Neither of the studies used in utero exposure|
|Red 3||Thyroid cancer||Only study did not include in utero exposure|
|Red 40||Yes||p-Cresidine||Only one “good study” conducted, no tumors||Immune system reticuloendothelial tumors|
|Citrus Red 2||Bladder cancer||Bladder plus other cancers|
|Green 3||Bladder plus other cancers||Only study did not include in utero exposure|
|Blue 1||Only one “good study” conducted, no tumors||One reported kidney tumors, no in utero studies||Inhibited nerve cell development in vitro|
|Blue 2||Brain and bladder cancers, it was said dosage used was also likely too low||Both studies said to be too brief and without in utero exposure|
|in utero = in the womb
in vitro = test tube/Petri dish
“good studies” as defined by the Center For Science In The Public Interest (both genders of animals, a number used they deem sufficient, duration, and other criteria)
That data and the opinions about it are not ours. It’s a reporting of what was published in “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks” by the Center For Science In The Public Interest (7). They also claimed that most testing was done by the industry rather than independent labs.
Even though they are considered safe in humans at the amounts used in food and drinks, it’s quite understandable why more and more people don’t want these used for frosting their birthday or baby shower cake. Easy recipes for substitutes and buying ready-to-use alternatives are skyrocketing in popularity.
What are the most commonly used food dyes? Out of total consumption, that same report listed these three synthetics:
- Red 40 as 41.3%
- Yellow 5 as 25.0%
- Yellow 6 as 23.7%
Together, those 3 make up 90% of the dyes used. Coincidentally, they happen to be the ones which are banned in the UK.
Even though Blue 1 and 2 are in the minority, they’re quite common in many items we eat:
- popsicles, ice creams, and other frozen desserts
- cake icing
- French macarons
- some canned peas to enhance color
- alcoholic beverages
Non-edibles like play dough, shampoo, and perfumes also make use of them. Black color in food is often made by mixing a red, green, and blue.
Reviewing the alternatives
Are you fed up with using strange chemicals? Fortunately, you have all natural food coloring alternatives.
The main differences between natural and synthetic food coloring is:
- Synthetic are created almost always using petroleum byproducts. By definition, the natural versions are all plant derived and not synthetically created.
- Synthetic create bright colors, including neon and virtually every shade of the rainbow. With plant derived versions, expect more subtle hues, especially for the greens and blues.
Here are the 3 criteria we use to evaluate your alternatives:
- Efficiency – Do you need a few drops or the whole bottle to color your frosting? How powerful (or not) they are can vary greatly between the brands and which vegetables/fruits they’re sourced from.
- Ingredients – Just because something is “natural” does not mean it’s good for you. Or it may be less preferred over similar sources, which offer health benefits like antioxidants.
- Value – This tends to correlate with efficiency, but not always. Basically, you want the most bang for your buck (applications of it). Keep in mind though the where you buy it can greatly effect the value. Being a niche product, a lot of brick and mortar grocery stores charge a fortune for them (if they even sell them).
Sometimes, making your own is the best option. For those, we include the full recipes on how to do that when needed. Often times though, it’s using an off-the-shelf powdered spice or fruit extract, so a formal DIY recipe isn’t needed. Rather, it’s an easy process of just adding powder incrementally until the color you want is attained.
Where to buy?
Is Americolor food coloring natural? Nope, sorry. What may be the best selling premium brand still uses the synthetics.
Chefmaster natural food coloring is typically wholesale in bulk. We have never seen it for sale at Whole Foods, let alone somewhere like Walmart. The smaller quantities of Chefmaster for sale online we see are for their artificial versions.
The list of all natural manufacturers is short. India Tree and Color Garden seem to be the two bestselling brands. Others include Maggie’s, TruColor, King Arthur (but most they sell are artificial from Americolor), Uncle Roy’s (UK brand) and Queen Fine Foods (Australian brand). Only some of these are USDA certified organic, but most are non GMO.
Many of these are kosher certified and gluten free. Generally they’re good for you if you have allergies. Being from plants, they’re vegan and vegetarian friendly as long as you avoid the carmine red made from bugs.
Does Trader Joe’s sell natural dyes? Nope, not a single one.
Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Earth Fare do but you will typically only find one or two brands and the pallate options for them are often quite limited and expensive. For that reason, it’s typically preferred to buy them online.
All natural red food coloring
Thanks to the many berries and plants which contain reds, maroons, and purples, this is the easiest one to switch out.
Anthocyanin pigments are what create these colors. Whether they appear as blue (like in a blueberry) or red (like a raspberry) is mostly determined by the pH of the plant. Since anthocynanins are a potent class of antioxidants, they may actually make your baking recipes more nutritious.
Red berries and their extracts
Extracts are usually preferred, since using flavorful fruits like raspberry will change what the food tastes like. For some recipes that’s okay though.
Frozen organic raspberries are the most cost efficient source. It’s not really a recipe per se, just liquefying them in your blender.
Their drawback is food safety – being raw and at room temperature for any extended period of time may lead to bacterial growth. For refrigerated jello that’s not a problem, but you may have Christmas cookies sitting around for days or even weeks.
Rather than the whole berries, consider these extracts:
- Navitas Naturals organic pomegranate powder
- Navitas Naturals organic goji powder (great for a true vibrant red color!)
Natural red 4 or carmine is not made from petroleum, but something which may be as equally gross; cochineal beetle shells. Obviously not vegan or kosher! Go with goji powder for as a good alternative.
Beet root powder
If you’re okay with a maroon, which can work well in chocolate red velvet cake, then consider beet powder. To create a bright natural pink color, just use less.
Be aware that most – even those which are USDA certified organic – come from China.
If you want those grown in the USA or Europe, make sure you carefully check the label. For those which do not disclose country of origin, you can bet they’re most likely coming from China.
Recommendation: Pure Synergy Organics beet juice powder
It’s not as good of a value as buying a bottle of powder, but if you want do-it-yourself that’s more foolproof try the ColorKitchen beet red packets, which are specifically made for frosting and baking.
Need true red? No problem, go with the ColorKitchen orange/red combo. The red comes from beets while the yellow comes from turmeric. Adjust the ratio accordingly to get the exact shade you desire.
Miracle Reds superfood
This contains a little of everything.
Not only does it include beet, red raspberry, pomegranate, and turmeric, but also carrot, elderberry, blueberry, acai, and acerola cherry which is high in vitamin C.
The all natural non GMO ingredients also include ginkgo biloba, green tea extract, probiotics, and vitamin B12 for energy. It’s vegan and gluten free.
Leftover red dyes are normally of no use, but with this product you won’t waste anything.
Use the rest for making drinks — simply stir in a glass for flavored red water.
Or use as a nutritional booster for your oatmeal, smoothies, protein shakes. After it has softened at room temperature, you can stir it into vanilla ice cream for a healthier dessert.
Natural yellow color for food
As with the reds, you will have a number of options when it comes to choosing a natural yellow food coloring for frosting or Easter eggs.
You may remember that in 2016 Kraft dropped the artificial colors in their macaroni and cheese. As an alternative for Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, they now use a combination of paprika, turmeric, and annatto.
That means it’s no longer the neon orange you remember from your childhood, but that’s fine because it’s now healthier.
For an easy solution use ColorKitchen yellow which is made from turmeric.
For a better value, use a smidgen of bulk organic turmeric powder.
Using annato or paprika will produce more of a rusty orange versus a yellowish. In order to get as close as possible to a true yellow coloring with turmeric, you only need a tiny bit.
For your non-dessert recipes, such as if you want to make vegan cheddar cheese using ground nuts, then mustard seed powder along with nutritional yeast is a good alternative for creating that yellow-orange hue.
Organic green food coloring
This is the hardest pigment to re-create naturally. There are several alternative food dyes which create a pastel green naturally, like what you see on an Easter egg.
But creating the intense Laurel green or pistachio that you see on cookie icing during the holidays is next to impossible. When going the organic route, get used to your Christmas sugar cookies looking a little bit Easterish!
What is the best natural green food coloring for frosting may actually be bad for you. This is because it’s spirulina derived.
How can such a superfood be considered unhealthy?! Well there’s nothing wrong with spirulina itself, but rather the other toxic blue-green algae which can often be found growing in the same water.
Spirulina is 100% safe, but the other cyanobacteria which can contaminate it produce BMAA, which is a neurotoxin. A recent study found that 14 out of 39 spirulina products for sale in Canada were contaminated with BMAA.
Given the risky side effects of spirulina and chlorella contamination, avoiding it altogether may be your best bet.
To be clear, there is no evidence to suggest that the food dyes being sold are contaminated (those were NOT among the 39 products tested). However for us to feel comfortable promoting them, we would need to know:
- Exactly who their supplier are for the spirulina
- Confirmation that each batch is being tested for BMAA to ensure it’s non toxic
Being that such info is currently not published by any manufacturer, we can’t endorse their organic green food color for sale which has spirulina in it. Or at least, we can’t recommend it as our first choice.
So for now, here’s how to make dark green food coloring naturally. It will appear lime (almost neon!) if you mix just a tiny amount of it with white frosting.
While our recipe does involve spinach, we promise it will not make your frosting taste like that vegetable! The sugar or other sweeteners overpower it. Even if you were to use a lot (and it would take a lot) it still will not taste like a salad (think how good creamed spinach tastes).
Superfoodly’s All Natural Green Food Coloring Recipe
- 6 ounces of pre-washed organic baby spinach. This is equivalent to the amount found in a $1.99 bag of Trader Joe’s spinach or similar.
- Filtered water.
- Fill a medium sauce pan with approximately 1″ of water.
- Place spinach atop water and cover pan with lid.
- Bring water to a boil. Once this occurs, remove lid.
- Reduce heat and simmer until only 1/4″ of water is left; 10 to 15 minutes.
- Remove from stove top, allow to cool for 20 minutes.
- Pour into blender and liquefy.
- Add to frosting, using small increments of 1 tsp at a time, until desired green hue is obtained – less for lime, more for forest or dark green.
Organic blue food dye
More bad news… the premade options use spirulina for this, too.
If you want to know how to make natural blue food coloring from blueberries, it’s basically the same approach as our spinach recipe, but using berries instead. Though despite their name, they produce more of a purple pigment.
To achieve a Tiffany blue or baby blue, you will need to add baking soda to adjust the pH. along with some yellow dye. Even then, it can be hard to achieve.
However the best homemade blue dye does not involve blueberries, but red cabbage.
Yes, red cabbage.
Natural blue food coloring recipe
Here’s how to make it from scratch at home using just 2 ingredients. The process is easy even if you’re not a big do it yourselfer.
- aluminum free baking soda
- organic red/purple cabbage
You don’t even need the full head of cabbage, as half will be plenty for just about any cake frosting recipe.
Slice off a half. Cut out the white stem — it has no pigment, so it won’t do you any good. Chop into pieces small enough to easily fit into a sauce pan.
Add 1″ of water in a medium sauce pan and dump the cabbage on top. Cover and bring to a boil.
Once boiling, remove lid and reduce heat to a simmer. Continue cooking for 15 minutes or until only a 1/4″ to 1/2″ of water is left.
Note that this will take longer than just boiling down plain water, as the cabbage itself is adding plenty of water as it cooks down.
Strain the cabbage from the liquid, which will be a deep violet pink.
You will be using the liquid for the coloring. To not waste the perfectly edible cabbage, stick it in your fridge to eat later.
Allow the liquid to cool for 20 minutes so it is only lukewarm. To expedite this process, allow it to cool in another dish rather than the hot pot you cooked it in.
Now it’s time for some chemistry!
Remember we said the color of anthocyanins are largely dependent on their pH? Purple cabbage an perfect example of this.
By adding a tiny bit of baking soda, you can create the exact shade you want.
A tiny bit will create a dark navy blue food coloring. If you want a light blue or Tiffany hue, it will take a little more and perhaps yellow along with it.
The pigment is so sensitive to pH, it’s recommended that you add the baking soda in increments of less than a 1/4 teaspoon at a time.
For fine tuning, it may be easier to sprinkle it on and stir until the shade you want is achieved.
How to make aqua blue coloring? That is what will happen if you add too much. Though maybe an aqua color you want?
If you want pink, you can skip the baking soda altogether. Use a tiny amount as-is to make your frosting more of a rose water or strawberry shake shade. How to make hot pink food coloring or fuchsia will likely require some added red coming from goji powder.
Play around until you get your perfect shade!
Add this highly concentrated organic pigment to your frosting, macarons, homemade play dough, Easter eggs dip, or whatever your heart desires.
Tiffany blue icing is a popular choice for anniversary and wedding cakes. If you want it to be exact, you may need to add organic yellow coming from turmeric.
Since this simple homemade coloring recipe is so cheap to do, some experimentation with it makes sense.
Healthiest option for purple
Blueberry gives you a blueish purple. If you want a real dark purple and a healthier option, try using acai. It’s healthier for you considering its ORAC value:
- Acai powder = 102,700
- Whole raw blueberries = 4,669
Now that’s not a great comparison, since powdered acai has its water content removed and is therefore more concentrated than fresh blueberries. Regardless, acai has significantly higher antioxidant content when comparing equal forms.
Try Sambazon organic freeze-dried acai powder. To get consistency, it’s recommended to blend it in your frosting rather than stirring it in. It makes a good lavender as-is. Add red to make it violet.
How to make black
At Halloween, this question gets asked most. But other times you may need real black coloring to make a Batman birthday cake or other theme.
Whatever you do, don’t use activated charcoal because it may not be healthy for you for multiple reasons (read the link).
You may have heard that the only effective all natural black food coloring recipe is using squid ink. There are other options…
Blackstrap molasses is largely responsible for the color of black licorice. It does have some brown to it, but it looks closer than the dark grey which is created by combining blue, red, and green.
As far as black licorice itself, it’s actually toxic in excess. The Glycyrrhiza glabra root extract can cause a potassium deficiency and the side effects which accompany that. Since 1991, the European Union has recommended no more than 100 grams of the candy per day, which is only about 3 ounces.
Liquefied black beans can work with chocolate recipes, but their taste is too strong for vanilla and most fruit-flavored baked goods.
In terms of creating the darkest black possible, the best plant-based vegan option remains blackstrap molasses. Yes the flavor is strong so it won’t work for all recipes, but using a little black frosting for ghost eyeballs or Jack O’ Lantern pumpkin faces won’t be a problem.
Alternative for the entire rainbow
Being Martha Stewart might be something you don’t have time to do between your kids and work!
That’s completely understandable.
If you want an easy, one-stop-shop solution for all of the rainbow, you will need to buy an organic food coloring kit which contains the 3 primary colors.
That will entail spirulina, but you know what? It’s still a good solution relative to artificial dyes.
We only pointed out spirulina’s potential risk out of an abundance of caution. To reiterate, there’s no reason to suspect the dyes using spirulina are contaminated. While not our first choice, we would still choose them as a replacement for FD&C Blue 1 or 2 any day of the week.
India Tree makes a 3 bottle set of red, yellow, and blue which we successfully have used for frosting Christmas cookies. Though we reiterate — whether using premade or homemade natural food colors — you need to accept those vividly bright blues and greens just won’t be happening.