by Brittany Shutts
With every holiday comes a rainbow of vibrantly colored sweets and treats. Besides a variety of heart shaped candies, you might have seen a lot of red velvet cake this past Valentine’s Day. Anyone who has ever baked a red velvet cake or looked over a recipe will tell you that it takes an entire bottle of red food coloring to achieve that luscious shade of red. Green cookies and cupcakes are already making their debut on the shelves for Saint Patrick’s Day.
Besides baked goods and candies, food dye can be found in cereal, fruit drinks, yogurt, toothpaste, lunch meat, and even farm-raised salmon. Food dye gives an often false impression that the food contains healthy fruits or vegetables. Many prescription medicines contain artificial colors. These dyes are carcinogenic, neurotoxic, aggravate behavioral problems in children, and have many other health effects on children and adults.
Over the summer, the European Union demanded that products containing certain hazardous dyes referred to as the “Southampton Six” display a warning on the label. The name “Southampton Six” comes from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study from the University of Southampton that connected artificial food dyes to behavioral problems in children. The effects were not only observed in children with suspected behavioral disorders.
The connection between food dye and ADHD has been debated since the 1970s. Dr. Ben Feingold, an allergist, was one of the first to notice the link between diet and behavioral difficulties in children. He began promoting a diet for children with behavioral disorders that avoids artificial food dyes and preservatives and observed positive results.
While the EU is using labels along the lines of the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes to identify products that have not willingly replaced their artificial colors, the FDA has taken few steps to limit their use in the United States. However, these chemicals are used more frequently on this side of the map. A strawberry Nutri-Grain bar in Britain uses natural dyes such as beetroot, annatto, and paprika extract, whereas in the US, the same strawberry Nutri-Grain bar contains Red no. 40, Yellow no. 6, and Blue no. 1.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is calling for a ban on nine synthetic food dyes and for warning notices on artificially colored food products until they can fully implement this change. The FDA will hold a hearing this March to determine whether there is enough evidence to prove that the dyes are harmful. In the meantime, you can avoid these products by reading labels and by shopping at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, two grocery stores that don’t carry products containing these harmful artificial colors.
This doesn’t mean that you have to settle for white cake. Brighten up your baked goods with natural alternatives to synthetic dyes. To make red velvet cake without a bottle of red food coloring, try using the juice from a can of beets and substituting it for the part of the liquid in the recipe. The flavor of the beets will not affect the flavor as the sugar seems to cover it up. This recipe uses grated beets for its red tone at Dying For Chocolate. Here is another recipe that gets its coloring from beets, but also uses unprocessed cocoa powder to produce a deeper red at Bittersweet Blog.
Strawberries, cherries, and raspberries can also be used to the same effect. If you thaw a bag of frozen cherries, there is a lot of juice at the bottom that will make your batter sweeter and give it a rosy hue. Or cover a hibiscus tea bag in just enough hot water to let some of its bright red seep out. Puree, cook, and strain blueberries or blackberries for blue baked goods or frosting. Use a little bit of turmeric in place of yellow dye, but keep in mind that too much will give frosting a bitter taste. Spirulina—a bluish-green alga available in health food stores—makes the perfect shade of green for your shamrock-shaped sugar cookies when combined with a bit of turmeric.
If you prefer something that you can keep in your cupboard, NaturesFlavors.com provides bottles of natural food coloring. They are pricier than using canned beets or turmeric, but they’re always available when you want green pancakes just for the fun of it and you don’t have any algae on hand. Since Easter isn’t too far away, non-chemical Easter egg coloring may also be a worthy investment. You can purchase these food dyes here at Natures Flavors.
Image courtesy of DiscoMom.blogspot.com.