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March, 2012

Eat Your Food Coloring; It’s Good for You!

By Dennis Linden

The produce department is an artist’s palette of the basic colors: greens, reds, yellows, and blues.

Italian ParsleyUsing kale and parsley for natural green food coloring in the recipes in this month’s Cookin’ with the Kids feature got me thinking about how other fruits and vegetables could be used in cooking and baking instead of artificial food coloring. Why not just use what is offered on supermarket shelves? After all, if it is being sold in the grocery store it must be safe, right? Wrong. Several European countries have either outright banned these petroleum-based artificial dyes or require foods using any unnatural coloring to prominently display warning labels on packaging. Those labels are required to state that consuming foods containing artificial colors might be linked to behavioral issues in children as well as several cancers.

American companies doing business internationally have had to stop using artificial dyes abroad, while some continue to sell foods with those same banned ingredients in the U.S. marketplace. The FDA has been slow to address this issue, though the agency has recently formed a commission to appoint a committee to study the matter! Rather than trusting what’s on the grocery shelves, may I suggest taking a detour to the fresh produce department for all your food coloring needs! The colors are just as vibrant as the artificial products, even a little more natural; plus they are packed with value-added nutrients and antioxidants offering a lot more than just skin deep cosmetics that many even be harmful.

Yellow Bell Peppers, Parsley and BeetThe produce department is an artist’s palette of the basic colors: greens, reds, yellows, and blues. Choosing lighter or darker shades of a produce item give access to a range of color tones. The one thing that is different with fresh produce colors over paint is that one cannot blend two fresh colors to make a third. For instance, the yellow from a gold bell pepper and blueberry juice will not create green. So there is a limit to natural food dyes; on the other hand, paint does not taste nearly as good, so I guess it all balances out!

Will natural food coloring change the taste of the food? All the research I did on this subject counseled that the flavor is changed very minimally if at all. So I tried a few experiments on my own and, as suspected, don’t believe it. Of course most every fresh ingredients will impart flavor. What a silly thing to minimize rather than recognize and take advantage of by pairing up the right coloring agent with the rest of the dish’s ingredients. Obviously, you are trying to color naturally something that you are cooking or baking. An ingredient that adds color and flavor is a handy culinary tool, so use it by design.

Red Grape, Red Pepper and Black BerryCommon sense would dictate that one use juiced or pureed mint for cake frosting, rather than parsley or kale. If you find yourself skimping on the juice from a red bell pepper because you don’t want its flavor in the dish, then you have chosen the wrong red coloring agent. How about a raspberry or maybe pomegranate?

Some fresh produce transfer more color than others. Just think of fruits and veggies that stain the tongue and clothes as your color chart reference. Here’s a shop-by-the-color list of produce and how to best extract their colors:

Raspberries, juice
Cranberries, juice or boil*
Beets, juiced or boil*
Red Pepper, juice
Pomegranate, juice

Blueberries, juiced*
Red Cabbage, juiced or boil*
Radicchio, juiced or boil*
Blackberries, juiced
Dark Grapes, juiced or smash*

Yellows & Orange
Yellow Beets, juiced
Yellow or Orange Bell Pepper, juiced
Pineapple, juiced
Carrots, juiced

Kale, juice or puree*
Spinach, juiced or boiled*
Mint, juice or boil*
Artichoke, boil* *strained

There are also quite a few herbs that can double as coloring agents, like paprika, turmeric, chili powder, saffron and green tea. These definitely come with distinct tastes, so smart pairing is essential. Just doing the research for this article has made me rethink some favorite recipes that I could add a fun twist to with just a change up in color that also adds a new taste. I hope this has perked a few other culinary imaginations. Happy Forks!