Monday, June 1, 2009

Homemade Food Dyes

In two weeks, my baby will turn one year old (sniff!). We already have three (maybe four) different little parties planned for her - meaning three (maybe four) different cakes for me to make. This presents a small problem for me: my aesthetic desire to make cute cakes for my daughter is bumping against my vehement refusal to use any artificial dyes.

We cut artificial dyes out of our diet a few months ago, to see if it would help with Abby's behavior. The difference has been dramatic - she still has her moods and her tantrums (she is 3 1/2, after all!), but the tantrums are not endless, she can find her way out of them, and she engages more with other people. Frankly, I even notice a difference in myself - the last time I had something with dye in it, I was so irritable and crabby the rest of the day and could not get out of my funk. It took me until that night to make the connection - I threw out the rest of the dyed stuff in the house that day.

So with two weeks to go, I decided to try out some natural alternatives today. I've bought the India Tree dyes, but dang, they are expensive - $19 for three small bottles of dye! Sometimes they will be necessary, but I wanted to try a home-brewed alternative. I was fairly pleased with the result:

Clockwise from the top, the food I used to dye was: turmeric + beet juice, turmeric, pomegranate juice, paprika, blueberry juice, beet juice, and avocado in the middle.

I made a big batch of my favorite buttercream frosting (the Cook's Illustrated recipe - 2 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar, 2 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, 2 Tbsp of heavy cream, a splash of vanilla, and a pinch of salt) and added some dyes. My thoughts:

The spices (turmeric, paprika) added the most easily, but leave a hint of their flavor behind. Not as badly as I thought they would, and I would definitely not hesitate to make yellow or light orange this way.

The juices (blueberry juice, beet juice, pomegranate juice) yield the best tasting frosting, but their sheer liquidity is a problem. I had to stir in a lot of extra sugar to compensate for the liquid, and they are still separating a little. For a "real" cake, I would probably try my hand blender to really emulsify the liquid in.

The avocado actually works well, but tastes avocado-y. I should have pureed the avocado better before adding it in. It is a nice green, and I would probably just stick to using it for accents, like flower petals, rather than trying a whole green cake/cupcake.

No blue - I thought the blueberry juice would be closer to blue or purple, but it's really just magenta. I Googled and found some people use red cabbage or onion skins, but... ew. I can't imagine frosting my cake with water that cabbage was boiled in. If I'm desperate to make something blue, I'll use my India Tree dye.

Forewarned is forearmed, and now I have some better ideas for cakes for Lizzy - clearly, nothing bright red is going to happen, but I think some beautiful sunflowers (piped around chocolate cookies) may be in our future.

(Interested in the controversy around red dye #40? Red Dye Free has a great list of links along the side bar. If you suspect your child may react to dye, try cutting it out. It's made a big difference for us.)


Sherry said...

what kind of foods have artificial dyes? And how do you cut them out of your food?

Kara said...

Sherry - a lot of foods have dyes in them, especially ones marketed to kids! Some big offenders for us were yogurt and snack bars, but most candy have dyes, any fruit snack type things, lots of cereals, ice cream (like strawberry ice cream), some cookies, crackers... I check the label on pretty much anything that has any color to it. has a pretty good list of foods to check through.

As for getting it out of our diet, I just started becoming a label-reader. Anything with Red 40, or any other color-number combination, we don't buy. It hasn't been too hard to find substitutes for most things, especially if your grocery store has a "natural" section (or if you go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's).

BECKY! said...

That's so interesting! It must take so much determination to stick to this!! Way to go! We eat so many "artificial dye" stuff on a regular basis - Flav-O-Ices, Mac & Cheese, Fruit snacks, popsicles, Froot Loops, etc etc etc. I don't know how you do it but think it's awesome!

Great post Kara!

Mom4Change said...

Hi Kara!
Thank you so much for sharing my blog -red dye free! Your cupcakes are very colorful. I took a picture of the orange cupcakes I made for my son. I should post that! It is possible to have colorful foods. It is more expensive for the food industry to use the "exempt artificial colors", but it is much healthier for sure. My whole family has noticed the difference. I just finished a post about the ingredient list so that it won't confuse people when they say artificial colors. Now I need to show your link so that people can see your beautiful cupcakes.

MaryAnne said...

This is a fascinating post, thanks for the link to the Red40 blog too.

cathy said...

LOVE it! I've looked longingly at the India Tree Dyes too (and some other natural food dyes I've come across), but you're right, SO expensive. I generally just go with natural color, but your cupcakes are so pretty that I might have to experiment with this on my own. Good job!

Mom4Change said...

My cupcakes aren't quite as colorful as yours but I enjoyed sharing your link on my post to show what you can do with natural colors! I'm sure more people are going to want to know how you did it! They will love your site. :)
I am happy for you and your family and that you have seen positive results by staying away from synthetic artificial dyes!

Anonymous said...

Wow! I LOVE your colors! Thank you so much for sharing with us, I've been wanting to experiment with a lot of these things but haven't found the perfect opportunity yet.

MaryAnne said...

Thanks for the link to the Handwriting Worksheets Wizard, I love the idea of customized worksheets!

C. Beth said...

Great ideas!