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A Fresh Look at Food Coloring

Vanilla Cupcakes with Pink Cream Cheese Frosting

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from Fine Cooking #116, pp.34-35

Like most red-blooded children, my 9-year-old daughter, Isabella, is magnetically drawn to colorful food—the brighter and bolder, the better. Hands down, she’d choose neon orange mac and cheese over any pasta, Technicolor ready-to-eat cereal over its beige counterparts, and rainbow ice pops over lemon ices or even real ice cream. For the sake of moderation, I occasionally indulge her when we’re out and about, but when she asked me to bake pink- and purple-frosted cupcakes for her birthday, I really struggled. I didn’t want to be a no-fun nutritionist mom, but I also couldn’t bring myself to cook with food coloring, an ingredient I know has many potential downsides. Luckily, I was able to find a solution that was fun, colorful, and healthful.

Featured recipe:

Vanilla Cupcakes with Pink Cream Cheese Frosting
Vanilla Cupcakes with Colored Cream Cheese Frosting

Food dyes: less safe than you think
Since the 1950s, as we’ve come to rely more on processed foods, synthetic food dyes in the American diet have increased five-fold. But while the Food & Drug Administration asserts that they’re safe as used, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group, says that food dyes may cause organ damage, cancer, and allergic reactions. A new study also confi rmed that artificial dyes trigger hyperactivity and behavior problems in some children. Since so many multicolored foods are marketed to kids, they wind up consuming much more of these dyes per body weight than adults, making them even more vulnerable to the health risks.

Look to nature’s brilliant colors
The good news is that you don’t need artificial food dyes to make colorful food. Nature is full of vivid hues that actually have a positive effect on your health. In fact, many of the natural compounds that impart color to food are antioxidants themselves: Carrots and mangos owe their orange to beta-carotene, for example, and berries get their bright red from the antioxidant anthocyanin. Then there’s the spectrum of richly colored spices with healing, anti-inflammatory power, like turmeric, paprika, and saffron.

To satisfy my daughter’s taste for color naturally, I now regularly purchase green, red, and orange pasta, which gets its color from spinach, red peppers, and winter squash. We enjoy discovering unusual colored varieties of produce at the market, like yellow cauliflower, purple potatoes, and green tomatoes. When cooking beets, I reserve a few tablespoons of juice and use it to make her mashed potatoes bright pink. And my whole family loves a little saffron in rice and yellow curry powder tossed with cauliflower, for both their flavor and their brilliant color.

As for those pink and purple cupcakes, I found that strained raspberry purée gave the frosting the most beautiful, bright blush, and grape juice concentrate made for a stunning purple. Taking it a step further and in a more adult direction, I stirred a little dissolved green tea powder into the frosting for a glorious pale green. To my surprise, that turned out to be Isabella’s favorite, and the frosting color she requests most. Whatever hue she prefers, it’s a “brilliant” solution that makes us both very happy.

Egg-cellent Idea for Easter: Read Robyn Doyon-Aitken’s post on How to Color Easter Eggs Naturally using kitchen staples like vegetables, berries, coffee, tea, and more.


Color, Naturally

You can impart color without resorting to food dyes by adding natural ingredients to your cooking. Consider the following examples:

red or pink • Red or pink Beet juice, cranberry juice, puréed raspberries or strawberries, roasted red peppers, paprika
orange or yellow • Orange or yellow Puréed mango, yellow curry, turmeric, saffron
blue or purple • Blue or purple Puréed blueberries or blackberries, Concord grape juice, or grape juice concentrate
Green • Green Puréed fresh basil or spinach, green tea powder (matcha)

Photos: Scott Phillips


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