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!)
RELATED: Is Food Coloring Bad For You?
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:
- chlorophyll for green
- beet powder for pink/red
- turmeric for yellow
- cocoa powder for brown/tan
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
36 thoughts on “Easy DIY Natural Food Coloring”
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Thanks for the info. I’ve just gotten into learning about natural food dyes and wondered how much to use, how bright they are, and even what’s out there. Very informative!
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Thanks for the information and knowledge.
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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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i love using natural food dyes! heres a resource for blue for you, and should be readily available! http://wholenewmom.com/recipes/natural-blue-food-coloring-dye-just-in-time-for-easter/
i used to live in a place with an abundance of blue violets, those also make a nice blue. for green you could try spirulina or boiled spinach using the red cabbage technique!
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.
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!
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.
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 🙂
Here is my spirulina baseball field cake for my son’s fourth birthday: http://thechroniclesofsunukjia.blogspot.com/2010/09/johns-4th-birthday-party.html
And the beet-colored frosting for my daughter’s cupcakes this year: http://thechroniclesofsunukjia.blogspot.com/2011/08/leahs-7th-birthday.html
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…
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
Petty much the only thing I EVER dye in my house is playdough! I’ll have to pick up some tumeric…and more beet powder — I’m all out!
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.
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
U don’t have to use it in curries only, use them in quick Indianstyle stir fry veggeis.
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?
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!
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
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.
You mentioned needing to find a good blue. On Easter eggs, we’ve tried red cabbage and blackberries, both with great results. This link has pictures of the blackberry eggs, as well as notes about the technique: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.110540319032002.23047.108016459284388&type=3
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:
Thanks so much, Grace!
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.
Wow, love that! Was the main body of the frosting avocado then, not the sugar just colored w/avocado? How awesome!!! 🙂 Katie
I’ve found I like the colors here the best: http://www.chocolatecraftkits.com/shop/index.php?main_page=page&id=25
Much easier to use them premixed rather than try to figure out your own green or orange!
Though after looking at your lovely green shade, I may change my mind. What fun!
Thank you for posting this link! I am way to lazy to make my own colors, but I just hate using the fake ones – might be worth the money to feel better about coloring icing, cookies, etc.
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?
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