Eat Well, Spend Less: Having "Fun" with Natural Food Coloring

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I’m totally not fun.

Typically, I’m literally a fountain of topic ideas, but when I saw that this month’s Eat Well, Spend Less theme was “having fun with food“…well…I kind of freaked out. I believe I wrote on the list: “I’m not fun! I have no idea what to do!”

This is a stretch, but it’ll have to do.

Katie on Food Coloring

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Artificial colors are one topic I have just never gotten into deeply. When you’re making most of your own food from scratch already, the only time to worry about yellow no. 5 and red no. 40 is when we eat out or indulge in candy or other desserts, and I just kind of write off those entire experiences as “compromise” anyway.

Every time Easter rolls around, I feel the need to explain that I just can’t prioritize (a) figuring out how to make natural food colorings and (b) gathering special supplies for it, and then (c) finding the time to make them. I offer the same surrender when I make birthday cakes with my beloved homemade frosting. I just use the food coloring in my cupboard and don’t bother thinking about it any further.

I decided that perhaps I could peek – just peek, mind you! – into the subject of natural food coloring. You know, for the sake of being so fun. Winking smile Also because I don’t want parabens in my playdough…

(And of course, it fits pretty well with my Lenten challenge: My Food is Not a Number! although I could easily give up artificial colors and not need any of my own – real food has plenty of color on it own!)

Important Guidelines for Natural Food Coloring

Since I don’t really want to do anything special – remember, I’m totally not fun – I am determined to find and try only those natural food coloring options that fit within these strict guidelines:

  1. Must be simple – no cooking involved
  2. Must be accessible – nothing I can’t find in a store in 3 minutes
  3. Must be inexpensive – no more than $1 per color OR something I’d have on hand anyway
  4. Must be non-perishable – something like this that I won’t use often can’t require a trip to the store or potentially wasting food in the produce drawer if I get behind on my schedule – you wait for me, colors.
  5. Must be effective – if it doesn’t work at all, it’s really not worth my time

In other words, I’m not using cooked spinach or red cabbage for green and purple – too much work!

Donielle helped give me some simple ideas that will at least get me through Christmas (red and green) and Valentine’s Day.

Here’s what we’re going to experiment with today:

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  • chlorophyll for green
  • beet powder for pink/red
  • turmeric for yellow
  • cocoa powder for brown/tan (not pictured)

Pink and Red: Beet Powder

My first test was on Valentine’s Day, inspired by these lovely pancakes. Out of the Box Food used an actual beet in her pancakes. I bought an actual beet. Here it sits, still on my counter:

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I didn’t get around to cooking it on the 13th, so no beet pancakes on Valentine’s Day.

Instead, I tried mixing beet powder into the batter of our favorite soaked pancakes – which we don’t have very often because they’re wheat based. I’ve had an interesting experience with putting beets into food before (right), so I was wary of using too much and ending up with dirt pancakes.

The batter quickly turned a super fun pink, but by the time the pancakes themselves were cooked, they were back to brown:

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No underlying beet taste. Phew. Take two. I added more beet powder, which kind of needs to be “de-clumped” with your fingers before it will evenly mix in:

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Luckily, unlike artificial colors which stain your fingers for days, beet powder does rinse right off. I kept adding more beet powder with every batch I cooked up, probably about five times, until finally we got a tinge of pink in the pancakes:

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You’d kind of have to be looking for it to know it was there, though:

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The beet powder never did impart a flavor to the pancakes, but I probably used 25 cents worth of this package! I should have just made heart shapes…

Green: Liquid Chlorophyll

My next test was simple, and one I’d recommend trying yourself if you’ve got a good idea for a natural color and wonder how it will work: just mix a little into your plain homemade yogurt to see what happens. You’ll know if the color is bold enough to matter and if there is any flavor going on, too:

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This was about an 1/8 teaspoon of chlorophyll and the same of beet powder. The only chlorophyll I found at our health foods store had added peppermint essential oil, which I didn’t pay attention to in the store. I thought I could taste it a little, but it wasn’t a bad thing and certainly wasn’t strong.

I also had a little frosting left over from my husband’s birthday in November – for real – so I was glad to be able to test the colors in an application where I’d be most likely to use them anyway:

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All three colors ended up looking pretty good, and even better after it sat for a day:

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My family taste tested them all on homemade graham crackers (recipe is in the new edition of Healthy Snacks to Go) and no one could taste any additional flavor. High marks!

UPDATE: After a few weeks, the frosting with the beet powder was brown – I’m not sure how fast it happens, but do know that it doesn’t hold its color as well! I just checked the playdough, and it looks like a hint of purple, but it has seriously faded.

I tested kelp powder on a tiny spoonful for an army green, and I wouldn’t recommend it – it had a definite overtone of ocean and fish! Smile with tongue out

Yellow: Turmeric Powder

I have turmeric in my cupboard, even though I don’t know if I’ve ever used it. The yellow it created doesn’t take much more than a heavy sprinkle, and I thought it was a pleasant color:

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Okay, this picture makes it look a little like baby poo. Shucks. I promise, it looked better in real life! See how nice it made our playdough look?

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That was our last challenge to test out the new colors. Leah and I made homemade playdough yesterday. In one batch of playdough, we used one teaspoon chlorophyll in the water/oil blend with great results. Of course, you can always increase the color as you’re stirring it in if you want more.

Note: the chlorophyll did stain my counter where I set the measuring spoon, so use with as much caution as you would the “real” (fake) food coloring. I was luckily able to rub it out with a little baking soda, my favorite go-to cleaner.

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We made a “plain” uncolored batch and tried adding the two powders afterward:

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The turmeric blended in rather nicely after some kneading, which is a fun part of playdough anyway (oh, look – I am fun after all! …just not with food…). the photo on the wooden cutting board is the yellow with just powder rubbed in.

The beet powder had more trouble:

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We decided to make another half batch using a half teaspoon of beet powder in the liquid, and of course, my little princess LOVED this pink:

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I completely forgot to try mixing colors, but I really need a blue in my repertoire to make things like purple. I think yellow and pink/red would probably make an easy orange. Shaina from Food for my Family tells me that blue corn extract makes an awesome bright blue…but I don’t know if that would fit under ‘easy to find.’ ???

Brown: Cocoa Powder

I didn’t really need to test this one, because I have many times. A little cocoa makes a nice tan and a lot makes a deep brown, but you definitely need to expect a chocolate frosting, no hiding it.

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The hair and face detail on the left, and all the brown on the right, are made with only cocoa powder. How fun is that?

Playdough is Fun

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We had a little “plain” playdough left, which I wouldn’t have made on purpose, but it makes a great pizza crust! We also made asparagus. Nothing but fun.

Where to Find Supplies

This may be trickier than you’d like if you don’t have or don’t frequent a good health foods store. I’m just lucky Donielle is local and could tell me where to find things! I went to the herbs for tea sort of section and got the beet powder, which I’d highly recommend as an easy, inexpensive coloring.

The chlorophyll was more expensive – over $8 – but it had been recommended to me when John was born to assist my homemade deodorant in being effective for the post-childbirth detox stinky armpits. Since I wanted to experiment with it anyway, it was an acceptable cost, BUT I see “refrigerate after opening” on the bottle – so that might break rule number 4 (non-perishable) since my fridge space is so precious!

Turmeric is a normal spice, often used in Indian food. If you use too much, you will taste it, so you might not want to plan to make a sunshine cake before testing a little in your own frosting…

Is Natural Food Coloring Worth It?

If it’s important to you to avoid food dyes, for behavioral or carcinogenic reasons or because of the endocrine disrupting parabens, then yes, you should figure out natural colors – IF you need colors at all.

On the other hand, if you’re compromising with a white flour, white sugar cake anyway…you might want to use the cheap, easy stuff. But only if it’s just a few times a year! As for me, I think I’ll keep trying with the natural way. Birthday season is about to break open, so I’ll learn fast if I can make it work!

How do you have fun with color in the kitchen?

If you are interested in natural Easter egg dyes, here are a few options:

In this month’s edition of Eat Well, Spend Less we’re talking about making food more fun. Check out what the other ladies have up their sleeves…

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36 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. cory says

    My experiences with turmeric have been that it stains like nobody’s business…did you have a problem with that in your playdough? Like, did it stain the countertop or anyone’s hands?

    • Katie says

      No – I was watching for stains as much as I could and didn’t see any. I should keep an eye out with the playdough, though, and I’ll definitely update if I see a problem. Thanks :) Katie

  2. Kathyb says

    I just made my son green birthday cake frosting with avacado’s, a little lime, vanilla and organic powdered cane sugar. It came out very green and very yummy!! No one even noticed the avocado or lime flavor. We also used melted chocolate for the brown.

    • Katie says

      Wow, love that! Was the main body of the frosting avocado then, not the sugar just colored w/avocado? How awesome!!! :) Katie

  3. says

    These are fantastic! I was so interested to see if they would work in the play dough, and they look great! One thing I have always thought to try is to save the water after I cook beets. Hmmm…

    Also, I wanted to let you know that I have an amazing soaked pancake recipe that is wheat-free! It is our favourite, and we don’t even have any gluten intolerances. You can check it out here:

  4. says

    i had to laugh at the rules of “must be present in my cupboard” and then you used chlorophyll and beet powder! those are not in mine. however, your point is well taken. i’m a boiler–took time, but it worked for easter eggs last year.

  5. says

    You can take the chlorophyll like a supplement–it helps with energy and symptoms of anemia :) And it does last for a long time in the fridge–I’ve had mine for several months. Thanks for the tips!

    • Katie says

      Eek, I just realized mine is still on the counter. I better get it in the fridge…I was hoping that was more of a “recommended” place for it. Wonder how I know if it goes bad? Thanks! Katie

  6. says

    I’m kind of surprised you don’t use turmeric in your cooking at all (there are probably lots of things you would be shocked that I don’t use too)…lots of Indian dishes are easy, fast, cheap and nutritious!
    Also turmeric is delicious in eggs or on potatoes…ooh, or on crispy roasted chickpeas.
    And it’s good for cardiovascular function.

    • Katie says

      It’s just one of those things I haven’t bumped into much, but I’m sure it will come. My DH doesn’t love curry, so I don’t do a lot of Indian, although I would love it! Any recipes? :) Katie

        • Vasate says

          OT: in regard of turmeric. Turmeric doesn’t have to be used with spicy dishes. I use it with all sorts of food I make (I add to soups, omelet, pizzas, vegetables etc). Turmeric all sorts of tumour cells growing and is recommended in nutrition of cancer patients. I usually combine half a teaspoon of turmeric with half a teaspoon of coriander in my cooking (depending on quantity of the food it could be less or more). Especially when I cook meat – add some ginger as well (if fresh – a ground piece of a size of half a thumb) – it will help with making meat taste better.
          Thank you for wonderful ideas on natural food coloring. I wish we had beats here easily accessible. What else could be used besides beats and raspberries for creating pink and red?

  7. melanie says

    Here is my spirulina baseball field cake for my son’s fourth birthday:

    And the beet-colored frosting for my daughter’s cupcakes this year:

    And my less successful foray into chlorophyll-frosted football cupcakes for this year’s birthday:

    Overall, since I only food-color a few times a year for birthday parties, the natural way seems to work. I’m hoping no one requests anything black in the near future…. poppyseeds? crushed organic, gluten-free oreos? black bean water? olives? Ick…

    • Katie says

      Yeah, black frosting always freaks me out – I don’t know if I’d go for “natural” black no matter what it was made of! 😉 Talk them into dark brown… :) Katie

  8. Tamara says

    Thanks for this great – and fun!- experiment.

    And thanks for the Everything Beans book sale! I had been holding out on it, but for $3 I couldnt resist :)

  9. Brittany says

    Thanks for the fun ideas for future dyeing. Luckily my boys have requested animal birthday cakes the last few years, which are easy to use white, brown or tan frosting.

    I have mixed leftover cranberry cream cheese dip with frosting for pink kitty ears. It ever-so-slightly flavored it, but it was such a little amount and the flavor melded fine with the cake. I do a lot of decorating with fruit and nuts too. My son’s octopus cookie cake had walnut half eyes, and my other son’s train cake had fresh fruit for the cargo, wheels, etc.

  10. Michele says

    I just did that experiment last week! I cooked down blueberries (purple) and strawberries (pink). The color and flavor of each was great, but the consistency of the frosting was no good for my decorating tips. In addition to turmeric and cocoa powder, I tried paprika. Eeek! Who knew paprika tasted like anything?

    My husband suggested freeze dried fruit next time. I’ll give it a try!

  11. Cheryl says

    I have used grass (chlorophyll) that was put into a blender with a bit of water to make beautiful green for water color painting. Teas, like berry zinger type, make wonderful pink/purple, black tea makes a nice brown and coffee makes a terrific dark brown. Some herbal teas are orange in color. I’ve also used blueberries for blue/purple and mustard powder for yellow.

    You could try these natural foods and strain them and use the liquid in place of the liquid in recipes.

    Sorry your pancakes didn’t turn out, Katie.

  12. says

    I’m impressed that you’re going to keep going with the natural dyes! We also use them infrequently, and the convenience and vibrant colors outweigh the miniscule health risks that few drops of food color might pose. I’ll pay attention to see what other colors you can come up with.

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