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organic living journey tackes food coloring

The following is part of an Organic Journey Guest Post Series, written by Amy a long time helper behind the scenes of Southern Savers.

There is an old saying that we eat with our eyes first. It’s true that a great presentation makes food more appetizing.   Am I the only one who notices that my homemade mac & cheese never looks quite as “cheesy” as the box mix?  That’s because Yellow No. 5 & No. 6 are added to enhance the appearance of many mixes.  You might have seen a recent news article about some folks petitioning to get artificial food coloring removed from a well-known brand of mac & cheese. That got me thinking and digging in deeper to find out what the hype is with artificial colorings and if we have any alternatives out there.

I was also left wondering why cheese is yellow in the first place. As it turns out, cheese made from the milk of grass-fed cows can give off a yellow hue from their beta-carotene rich diet. Most yellow cheese is now colored with annatto, a natural pigment used to make the cheese appear more yellow. Sure enough, I checked the cheddar in my fridge and it has annatto listed as an ingredient. Don’t you find it interesting that the concept of yellow-orange cheese is so familiar to us, but that for the most part, it’s not naturally occurring?

Okay, I didn’t want this article to be about cheese & dairy since we already covered that, so let’s get back to food coloring. I’ll admit, this research got a little sciencey, but I think there is a lot to learn here! In the US, there is a long list of food colorings that are FDA approved. These range from dyes derived from petroleum or coal tar to animal, plant and mineral based colorings. Yep, I said coal tar. The petrochemical based dyes are subject to batch by batch testing to make sure they meet purity standards. These include the dyes normally listed as a color and number (like Blue No. 2 or Red No. 40).

The other category of colorings are exempt from the FDA batch testing and these include a range of colors from beet powder to cochineal extract which is made from beetles in a series of chemical processes. Now there may not be anything wrong with beetle food coloring, but suddenly the color additives start to make me lose my appetite instead of increasing it.

There are a plethora of studies that claim links to everything from cancer to hyperactivity and allergies, particularly with the numbered artificial dyes. The FDA released a guide for consumers in 2007 and they state that FDA approved colorings are “very safe when used properly”, but they also acknowledge potential allergies.

“It is possible, but rare, to have an allergic-type reaction to a color additive. For example, FD&C Yellow No. 5 may cause itching and hives in some people. This color additive is widely found in beverages, desserts, processed vegetables, drugs, makeup, and other products.”

For the most part it seems we can rely on the “organic” label to steer us clear of the synthetic additives. I dug through the list of allowed substances and organic labeled colors are derived from agricultural products. They can’t be produced with synthetic solvents or carriers or any artificial preservatives. 19 total colors are approved including: beet, carrot, blueberry, annatto, cabbage and others. Many of these colorful species are high in antioxidants, so they might actually contribute to the nutritional value of our food, not just enhance the color. Novel concept, I know. Interestingly, these additives are required to be organic if it is commercially available, but can be non-organic if that is the only option available. (See section 205.606 of this document if you want the full list and all the details.)

The good news is that by buying organic products, you can avoid petroleum (or even bug) based food colorings. But what if I want to make Red Velvet cake or decorate some colorful Christmas cookies with my kids? I stood at my local specialty cake decorating shop hunting for options and they only had a huge aisle of the synthetic stuff. For next week, I’m on a quest to find some natural food coloring options for home bakers!

    • Nellybell

      That is interesting !! Another tid bit of info on food coloring is the meats in grocery stores if you notice always appear to be bright red , that’s because they add a dye for it to be more appealing to buyers , FYI !

    • Kristyn

      There are lots of natural food dye options, though most don’t give an intense of a color as synthetic dyes, hence the increased usage of them. Beet juice is a good option for red. Here’s a post from another blogger about the issue that also lists some natural alternatives. http://spoonfedblog.net/2012/03/14/i-am-so-over-the-rainbow-cake/

    • sB

      I was wondering how to make pink icing without using AFC. My daughter has a birthday and it is all pink! LOL!

    • Susian

      Don’t forget to check your vitamins and medicines! Foods that are white or brown may still have food coloring too!!!

    • Karen

      Thank you Amy and Jenny. It will be interesting what you find out. My daughter is ADHD and from the start, I was told to stay away from red coloring. When I buy medicine otc I have to look to make sure I’m not getting the wrong one. I don’t understand it but they say the pink is ok, just not the red. Again thank you for everything you do.

      • Jacob

        Yellow 5 and Red 40 are the two most complained about ones for ADD/ADHD. My wife has issues with practically all the Numbered food dyes (ADHD)

      • Jacob

        Yellow 5 and Red 40 are the two most complained about ones for ADD/ADHD. My wife has issues with practically all the Numbered food dyes (ADHD)

    • mistyraine

      Thanks very much for the article. Our family tries to avoid artificial dyes as much as possible. Birthday time was not the best. Due to the lack of options for buying a cake or even baking your own. Recently found out about India Tree Company. Some products are ok. Looking into beet juice as an option as well. If you find anything it will be greatly appreciated!!

    • Jess

      I agree that most of the time, you should try your best to stay away from artificial food colorings. However, for birthday parties and other special occasions, I firmly believe that a little bit of artificial food coloring, HFCS, etc is not going to hurt anyone! Just like everything else, moderation!!! Plus I know some little ones that would just love a pink or blue cake for their birthdays. ;-)

      • amysanders

        I totally get where you are coming from. One of my daughter’s best friends is allergic to red dye, so that has fueled our search for alternatives.

    • Maria

      I have seen sprinkles, decorator sugar and food coloring at Whole Foods that is natural. The sprinkles are not as bright and vivid, but my kids don’t seem to mind. The food coloring itself was pricey and I haven’t tried it. For decorating cakes, etc, you could use homemade uncolored frosting and accent with natural colored candy -there are jelly beans, m&m-like candy, etc). Also consider colored vegetables, etc. For example, did you know purple sweet potatoes turn a green-ish color when used in recipes with baking powder? I made dinosaur shaped green biscuits with dinner…the kids thought that was great. (if you cook too long they won’t stay green)

    • Mommyof1

      We firmly believe in staying away from artificial coloring. It is very hard though! I found that some of my seasoning mixes (lemon pepper from kroger in particular) had yellow 5 in it! Glad I only used it once several months ago. You would be really surprised what sorts of foods and drinks use this nasty stuff. I check everything we put in the cart at the supermarket now. Including drive time – my usual 1 hr grocery store trip took 2 hours just from reading labels.

    • Thank you for this! We try to steer clear or artificial food dyes, but it is even more difficult when it comes to shampoo/body wash/bubbles for the kiddos. My kids are OBSESSED with bubbles and I can’t get them to take a bath without them. As of right now I have been unable to find bath bubbles without soap in the store. I have ordered the pricey organic brands, but when they eventually run out it’s hard to justify another $12 + shipping..

      On that note, I am sure some great blogger out there has a DIY recipe. Off I go!

    • Sarah
    • love this! I subscribe to 100 Days of Real Food blog and love their article also! Thank you for shedding light on such an important topic, our food!

    • Jenny

      I made my daughter’s pink princess birthday cake icing using beet juice. I made homemade buttercream icing, and just opened a can of beets and poured some juice in, worked like a charm. Also used turmeric to make yellow icing on my son’s cake. We also recently dyed our brown eggs for Easter using beet, blueberry, and turmeric. Wonderful!

    • kristy

      Thank you so much for this! I understand the dangers of dye and have been hoping to see if there are natural food colorings out there (without having to boil beets, etc). I just want the cute little colorful bottles of healthy and acceptable dye…without all the strings attached! Looking forward to what you find out!

    • kristy

      Thank you so much for this! I understand the dangers of dye and have been hoping to see if there are natural food colorings out there (without having to boil beets, etc). I just want the cute little colorful bottles of healthy and acceptable dye…without all the strings attached! Looking forward to what you find out!

      • Morgan

        I need those cute little bottles on Friday and Saturday. Ugh! Been looking everywhere for non-chemical dyes that don’t require me to boil and cook and shred and juice. Lol. Why must it be so hard?!

      • Morgan

        I need those cute little bottles on Friday and Saturday. Ugh! Been looking everywhere for non-chemical dyes that don’t require me to boil and cook and shred and juice. Lol. Why must it be so hard?!

    • kelbs

      Is there some way to go back and read this series from the beginning? I tried clicking the link (organic journey guest post series) at the beginning of this post and was taken to a page of results that had posts back to 1/31/13. But when I tried to go to the next page, I just got all the current Southern Savers stuff.

      • yourbilletdoux

        You have to do a little plugging to do it. Here is the link to the first page of the series: http://www.southernsavers.com/tag/organic-journey/page/4 Go to the bottom and you will find the first post. After you are done with that page, change the link to http://www.southernsavers.com/tag/organic-journey/page/3 to read the next and so on. The links at the bottom of the page don’t work to keep you within the Organic Journey and will spit you out into the rest of the blog instead.

      • TheChapLeigh

        Amy had let us know a few months back that you can click on the “categories” box on the right hand side of this screen. Hit “next” until you see the “organic” box. Unfortunately, you will see many posts that are related to “organic” but not the organic living posts. Hopefully you can read through them all this way — there are four pages worth of posts currently.

      • amysanders

        you can try this and see if it works. i’ve got all of the posts listed on a board in pinterest. don’t know if you can get to it through this link, but you could try. http://pinterest.com/amysanders/organic-living-journey-posts/

    • alison v.

      God bless you for these articles and can’t wait to see the options you find out about!

    • Heather

      I have learned lots from these post, thank you so much. Also, in a another article you wrote how you made granola and muffins in advance. Would you consider sharing these recipes with us?

    • Jeffy Walker

      This explains why some ADD/ADHD kids should be on organic/natural diets!!