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Published: June 8, 2024

How to Make Natural Food Coloring and Avoid Unsafe Food Dyes

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If you’ve ever read a nutrition label and thought to yourself, “What’s yellow #5?” you’re not alone. Yellow #5 and other food dyes have been added to the U.S. food supply for at least the last century – in fact, butter and cheese first started being artificially dyed as early as the 1880s. Although many food dyes, like turmeric, are natural and even beneficial, many are synthetic and may or may not be safe.

Dyes are added to everything from candy to canned foods to make food look fresh and appealing.

In the United States, the FDA regulates which dyes are considered acceptable as food additives. The approved dyes are what the FDA refers to as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS); currently about 40 color additives are approved.

Some ingredients, like blue #1, red #40, and yellow #5, are likely known to be dyes, but others might not be as easily recognized. Examples include caramel (used in sodas, candies, and even pet food), ferrous gluconate (used to give olives a uniform black color), and carmine (a red dye made from beetles and used both in food and cosmetics).

Many question the effect that these substances may be having on our health. Yellow #5 (tartrazine), for example, has been speculated to increase hyperactive behavior in children, but research seems inconclusive.

Regardless, food dyes offer no nutritional value. Plus, there are a multitude of natural alternatives that not only offer pigmentation but also antioxidants.

Here are a few of our favorite natural options for creating nutritious additives!

Yellow/Orange: saffron, carrot, or turmeric

Red: beets

Purple: blueberries

Blue: red cabbage and baking soda (the baking soda intensifies the blue color)

Green: spirulina powder, matcha powder, or spinach juice

If you’d like to make your own dyes, check out these recipes!

Have you made your own dyes in the past? What did you use them for? How did they work out? We’d love to know!


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