Food coloring is a fun way to color homemade frosting on cakes and decorate cookies, but it’s not healthy. That doesn’t mean your food can’t be fun! I’ve got some simple ways to create natural food coloring.
Let’s Talk About Food Coloring
Artificial colors are one topic I have just never gotten into deeply, although I did experiment with cutting them out a few years back. 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. Also because I don’t want parabens in my playdough…
(And of course, it fits pretty well with my My Food is Not a Number! challenge, although I could easily give up artificial colors and not need any of my own – real food has plenty of color on its 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:
- Must be simple – no cooking involved
- Must be accessible – nothing I can’t find in a store in 3 minutes
- Must be inexpensive – no more than $1 per color OR something I’d have on hand anyway
- 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.
- 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!
Here’s what we’re going to experiment with today:
Pink and Red: Beet Powder
My first test was on Valentine’s Day, inspired by these lovely pancakes. 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. 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.
You’d kind of have to be looking for it to know it was there, though. 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…
We also made some homemade playdough to test our natural food coloring. This playdough has a half teaspoon of beet powder in the liquid, and of course, my little princess LOVED the pink.
Green: Liquid Chlorophyll
In one batch of our homemade 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.
Yellow: Turmeric Powder
I have turmeric in my cupboard, that I love to use in turmeric chicken soup and Instant Pot golden rice. The yellow it created doesn’t take much more than a heavy sprinkle, and I thought it was a pleasant color.
We made a “plain” uncolored batch and added the powder afterward. It blended in rather nicely after some kneading, which is a fun part of playdough anyway.
Brown: Cocoa Powder
I’ve used cocoa powder as a natural food coloring many times. A little cocoa makes a nice tan and a lot of it makes a deep brown, but you definitely need to expect a chocolate frosting, no hiding it. 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?
But Can You Taste It?
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.
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 so I was glad to be able to test the colors in an application where I’d be most likely to use them anyway. All three colors ended up looking pretty good, and even better after it sat for a day.
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! 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!
After a few weeks, the frosting with the beet powder turned brown – it didn’t hold its color well at all. I just checked the playdough, and it looks like a hint of purple, but it has seriously faded.
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.’ ???
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 or tea sort of section and got the beet powder, which I’d highly recommend as an easy, inexpensive coloring.
The chlorophyll was more expensive 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. If experimenting with your own natural food dyes seems like too much trouble, consider checking out these vegetable based natural food colorings that are just as easy as using regular food dye.
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!
If you are interested in natural Easter egg dyes, here’s an option.
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…
- 5 Ways to Make Food more Fun for Kids :: Katie of Good Life Eats
- Simple Ways to Create Memorable Meals :: Shaina of Food for my Family
- 5 Ways to Make Food Prep Fun :: Tammy of Tammy’s Recipes
- Fun Recipes for Kids to Make :: Mandi of Food…Your Way
- Surviving the February Food Blahs :: Aimee of Simple Bites
- Splurge Yourself Out of a Cooking Rut :: Carrie of Denver Bargains
- Give Mealtimes a Special Touch :: Jessica of Life as MOM