hy would anyone dye their food while there are so many beautiful, naturally colorful ingredients like deep red beetroot, bright yellow lemon, beautiful orange pumpkin, unique green pistachios, dark brown chocolate..? Well, it seems that natural colors aren’t attractive enough for us! We just love bright, colorful food, just like we like shiny objects, so it’s no wonder that artificially colored juices, candy, and sauces look so appealing to us! Sadly, the real, natural food looks bland and unappetizing, but that is the fact of life, so, let’s learn something about the stuff we eat.
Types of Food Colors
Food color is an additive or a substance that affects the color of the food when added to it. Regarding the origin – there are two types of food colors – natural and artificial, synthetically made food colors.
Natural Food Colors
Natural colors are derived from natural sources – plants, animals or minerals, but can also be obtained from processed natural ingredients like sugar. For example – caramelized sugar has been used for many years as a colorant. It does have somewhat bitter taste and an odor of burnt sugar. However, this dye is still used in many different commercially produced foods and beverages.
If you are a regular consumer of brown bread, chocolate, cookies, cough drops, whiskey and barbecue sauce, be aware that you have swallowed loads of this supposedly natural coloring! Most of the objections have been made because some of the manufacturers add ammonium in preparation of the caramel color.
Plants that provide yellow color are saffron, marigold, and turmeric.
The red color is more difficult to find in nature – it is extracted by crushing tiny insects, to be more specific kermes bugs and cochineal. It is possible to extract red color from red paprika, beetroot juice or raspberries, too.
Green is easily found in spinach or expensive pistachios.
In South East Asia, a flower butterfly pea is used to color food in blue. Caramel gives a whole range – from pale yellow to amber, dark brown color. Coffee and chocolate provide brown color, too, and I wouldn’t mind chocolate as color in my food!
Natural colors are more expensive and more subtle – you need to use more coloring to obtain strong shades. They are also less stable – they will change properties when exposed to light and heat.
Artificial Food Colors
Artificial or synthetic food colors are manufactured chemically. These are the most common used food colors because they are both cheap and vibrant, so – it’s a win-win situation, right? Well, not so much.
In the past people often used toxic mineral compounds, such as red lead and copper arsenite, in order to dye food, not knowing the consequences. Nowadays, most artificial colors are made from coal tar. Those colors are stable, and the smallest quantities are sufficient to get satisfactory results. Some of them, unfortunately, seem to be harmful to our health – they can cause hypersensitivity (allergy-like) reactions in some consumers and might trigger hyperactivity in children, so caution is advised. Anyway, each country has different regulations regarding usage of food colors, so bring your magnifying glass to the store and read the labels carefully!
What Colors to Use?
If you have never used food colors before, you could easily get discouraged by the huge variety of products that the market is offering. Before you buy any color, you should learn about purposes of all those little bottles and boxes, so you don’t end up with the ones you can’t use.
However, we’re not done yet! There is this thing called the ‘solubility’ that we need to learn about. Solubility is the property of a solid, liquid, or gaseous chemical substance called solute to dissolve in a solid, liquid, or gaseous solvent to form a solution of the solute in the solvent. Phew, I’m glad that sentence is behind us! Anyway, regarding the solubility, there are two main types of food colors – water soluble and fat soluble food colors.
Water Soluble Food Colors
If you want to color your fondant, sugar or make red velvet cake, you need a water soluble color – the color that is easily diluted in water.
Liquid Food Colors
Liquid colors are inexpensive and easily available. Any liquid color already contains a lot of water, therefore it is an excellent tool for a novice to experiment with the pastel shades, adding the color literally drop by drop. Don’t even try to make an intensive color with these! If you try to add too much liquid color to a recipe, you could mess up the ratios of solid and liquid ingredients, ending up with a dessert in the garbage.
Gel Food Colors
Gel colors are the most popular food colors. Thick, pigmented, and easy to use, they work great if you need to dye your batter, dough or filling. By using small quantity of gel color, you can obtain intense colors without disrupting the recipe. Gel colors are also great for coloring rolled fondant.
Powdered Food Colors
You can dilute powdered colors with the liquid (water, alcohol, etc.) but I don’t do that. My recommendation is to use these colors in their original form and ‘dust’ the food from the outside. For example – when I need to paint on my fondant flowers, I will only use powdered colors and paint with the brush. In some cases, I will use literally a single drop of alcohol to dilute the color and paint only for a moment, so that alcohol can evaporate quickly, leaving the painted surface clean and dry.
Fat Soluble Food Colors
Fat soluble colors are the ones that are diluted in fat instead of water. These colors are used for coloring chocolate, so – don’t be surprised if the content of the bottle you bought is solid as a rock! The reason is that the most chocolate colors contain cocoa butter, which makes them not only expensive but also solid at room temperature. How to overcome this problem? Put the bottle in your microwave and give it a few short bursts, or – simply put the bottle in a bain-marie. You could even heat up your oven at a very low temperature, approximately 30°C/86°F, and keep your bottles inside while you are working.
Well, now you know a lot about food colors, so – get to work and put that knowledge to good use! Another thing – off the topic – while thinking and writing about all those colors, one image was constantly in my mind’s eye – a rainbow. I know that the old tale says how a person who gets to the end of the rainbow will find a huge pot of gold, but…I don’t know – could it be a beetroot, saffron, or spinach instead? Let’s find out, shall we?