Adding color to food, in one way or another, has been the norm for centuries. From the Egyptians to medieval Europe, civilizations used natural sources of food colorants like herbs and plant extracts to add rich color to foods.
Nowadays, we see two types of food colors: natural colors and artificial dyes.
While artificial colors are typically cheaper and more stable to cook with, there are health concerns about the impact of artificial food colors on our children. Fortunately, plenty of natural food coloring alternatives are just as vibrant and colorful without the junk.
Let’s take a look into natural food colorings, their benefits, and our favorites to use in the kitchen.
What are Natural Food Colors?
Food coloring is essential in commercial food production and cooking at home.
Natural food colors are colorings derived from natural sources like plants, herbs, animals, or minerals. The sole purpose of natural colors is to add color to food products and not affect the taste or texture.
Plenty of plant-based food coloring options are available, with most natural food color alternatives suitable for a vegan diet. While there are animal-derived natural food colors, fruits, veggies, herbs, and plants can provide a rainbow of colors.
Natural food colors are present in many everyday items like baked goods, drinks, high-quality vitamins, and even some skincare products.
Artificial dyes are human-made, use chemical ingredients, and require manufacturing. Artificial colors are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food additive.
Worryingly, one study found that about 43% of grocery store items contained artificial colors, including most candies, fruit-flavored snacks, and drinks mixes. These are items predominantly marketed toward children.
While the modern food industry relies heavily on artificial colors, more people seek natural, healthier alternatives. The good news is the demand for natural food coloring is growing as consumers are more concerned about the impact of synthetic dyes.
Where Do Natural Food Colors Come From?
The origin and pigment used will determine the color and where you will most likely find it at the supermarket. For example, caramel can create the appearance of cocoa, which could darken soft drinks or make meat products look more appealing.
Here’s a breakdown of the most common natural food coloring sources:
- Carotenoids - these have a deep orange, red, or yellow color. The most common carotenoid is beta-carotene which gives sweet potatoes and pumpkins their vibrant orange color.
- Anthocyanins - this is what gives grapes, cranberries, and blueberries their beautiful purple and blue color. Anthocyanins are commonly used in water-based products like jelly and soft drinks.
- Turmeric - both a spice and pigment to give foods a bright yellow to deep orange color.
The Many Benefits of Natural Food Colors
Natural food colors enhance the appearance of foods and offer several benefits. Let’s take a look.
Safe and Healthy
The safety of synthetic food dyes is a controversial and ongoing discussion. Research suggests that some dyes are believed to have potential health concerns, yet they are still approved for use in our food system.
Natural food colors are generally considered safe for humans and are less likely to have adverse health effects than artificial colors. While the FDA says that approved food dyes are safe, there are some cautions around reactions to Yellow 5 and how synthetic dyes may affect some children’s behavior, not to mention the potential risk of food dye allergies. While allergic reactions to food dyes are rare, they can be just as serious as any other allergy.
By opting for healthy food coloring alternatives using natural sources, we can avoid unnecessary chemicals in our family’s diet.
Kind To The Environment
As food producers step toward meeting the demand for natural and safe food colorants, sustainability is another important issue. Typically, producing artificial colors uses non-renewable sources. Natural food colors can use renewable and sustainable sources, making them a more environmentally-friendly option than their synthetic counterparts.
We can rely on natural food colors to create a massive range of colors. That means natural food dyes can be used in many food products like soft drinks, baked goods, and more. Finding natural food colors that are versatile and generally stable will hopefully become the norm in food manufacturing as more producers take into account consumer concerns around synthetic dyes.
Enhanced Nutritional Value
Natural food coloring substitutes from plant-based sources provide beautiful colors and hues, but many contain vitamins and minerals for an added nutritious boost.
Anthocyanins-based colors (red, blue, and purple) are found in plants like berries and plums. Research suggests anthocyanins could be an inexpensive yet effective way to control cardiovascular risk and aging, lowering cholesterol and inflammation.
Plant carotenoids are responsible for yellows, oranges, and reds but may also lower the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD is an eye disease that can blur the middle part of your vision.
Turmeric has long been known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. Evidence suggests that curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, shows promise in preventing cognitive decline.
How to Spot -And Avoid- Products that Contain Synthetic Food Dyes
Navigating the grocery store and decoding a food label can feel like an overwhelming task at times. As a parent, it’s our job to create a diet for our kids that ticks the nutritional boxes as much as possible.
Organic foods are a great place to start if you want to avoid buying products for your family that contain artificial food coloring. When you see organic foods certified by the USDA, this is a guarantee that those items are free from artificial colors, preservatives, or flavors. Any organic food coloring certified by the USDA must meet strict organic standards.
When buying non-organic foods, try to get into the habit of scanning the food label for artificial food colors. The FDA states that foods must list any artificial dyes in the ingredients list. Most approved synthetic dyes in the U.S. are a combination of three dyes: Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. Food manufacturers also have the option to collectively label dyes as “artificial color added” or “color added.”
A good rule of thumb is that most unprocessed foods naturally don’t contain artificial dyes. Avoiding processed foods and choosing plenty of fruits, veggies, grains, seeds, and nuts will help you to decrease exposure to artificial dyes while adding lots of fresh produce to meal times.
We know that even with the best intentions, junk food looks tastier than a plate of veggies. That’s why having a high-quality kids multivitamin can help fill the nutritional gaps we all try to cover with a healthy and balanced diet.
At Hiya, we don’t use any artificial dyes. Instead we use turmeric for color and for additional health benefits. We also use natural antioxidants such as beetroot and spirulina to provide a hint of color to each vitamin. While many kids' vitamins traditionally include artificial dyes, our vitamins don't include any artificial colors and never will.
How To Use Natural Food Coloring at Home
Now for the fun bit. What substitutes for food coloring can we use at home? Whether it’s baking as a family, coloring seasonal holiday eggs, or prepping lunches for the week, there are plenty of exciting options to use in the kitchen.
Remember that these natural colorings are foods; they can add a different flavor or taste to foods when used in large amounts. Things like turmeric and cinnamon add color but are also intense flavors in large quantities. So, think small amounts.
Vegetable powders are ideal for adding color without lots of liquid. Try one of these:
- Pinks and reds - beetroot or hibiscus powder
- Blues - blue spirulina powder
- Greens - spirulina
- Yellows - turmeric powder
You can also make a concentrated liquid, which you can reduce to syrup if needed. The liquid can be from pure juice, water-based, or strained purée. Whatever method, always remember to reduce the liquid, as the less water you have, the more concentrated the color.
Natural food colorings at home are ideal for cold applications like icing, frosting, and glazes. Keep in mind that vegetable dyes do not work when baked unless there’s enough acid medium. So, if you have dough or batter, add lemon juice or buttermilk to the vegetable dye in at least a 1:6 ratio for cakes and cupcakes.
Good Looking Feel Good Food
All over the world, people are looking for cleaner, more natural foods, and they are willing to pay for foods with fewer undesirable ingredients. With so many options for natural alternatives to dye-free food coloring, hopefully, we will see even more in what we eat.
While it can take some trial and error to nail down your natural food colorings, we can all find something our families love. With some testing and knowledge, it’s completely possible to enjoy beautiful-looking food without the harmful effects associated with artificial dyes and ingredients.
We know that food labels can be misleading, but with some practice, you can determine the best foods for you and your kids. Teaching our kids to make healthy food choices starts from a young age, and the more we know, the more we can guide the next generation. While it’s important for children to get as many nutrients as possible from their food, a multivitamin can cover those easy-to-miss vitamins and minerals as kids develop and grow.