A look at what textural, taste, and health impacts various forms of food dye may deliver to your next technicolor creation.
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Rainbow Layer Cake
Credit: Beth Branch

While flour, sugar, eggs, and butter have been joining forces for ages to create countless varieties of delectable baked goods, when it comes to the vibrant, multicolored creations that dominate our Instagram Feeds one kind of ingredient is to thank: food coloring.

After all, without edible dyes, desserts would be a pretty humdrum affair, with nothing but brown and beige offerings lining bakery windows everywhere. But just how are those dyes affecting the taste, texture, and safety of your baked goods? We asked two experienced bakers about how they navigate the tricky world of food coloring to produce stunning sweets without sacrificing quality.

According to self-proclaimed “cake content creator” Chelsey White, who has amassed over 430,000 followers on Instagram for her eye-popping edible art, certain kinds of baked goods are more negatively impacted by the addition of coloring than others. “I’ve found that using food coloring doesn’t affect my cake batter much, but can affect more delicate pastry dough or macaron batter,” she says.

The Chelsweetscreator notes that “adding food coloring can sometimes cause people to over mix batter as they work to distribute the color, and this can cause batter or dough to toughen up and lead to large air pockets in the baked product.” To avoid this baking folly, White recommends incorporating the coloring into the liquids used in the batter prior to mixing, which will help you to avoid ending up with tough or dry dough.

In White’s opinion, when it comes to the impact on flavor, not all food colorings are created equal. “I can’t stand the taste of red food coloring,” she says, “to me it has such a strong aftertaste. I try to use no-taste red food coloring whenever I can, which helps a bit.”

As a rule, the Youtuber uses gel-based food coloring (which she buys online) in her batters and frosting whenever possible, saying, “I highly recommend using gel food coloring over liquid. It produces much more vibrant colors, and you can use a lot less than you would need to with liquid food coloring!”

Though White says she hasn’t “dabbled much with natural food colorings, mostly because they only come in a few colors and are more difficult to achieve specific colors with,” bakers are increasingly turning to natural color enhancers in order to avoid the possible health implications that have been associated with artificial dyes.

In fact, many health advocacy groups, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, want to ban all food coloring in commercial goods due to the potential health risks posed by the ingredient. Recent studies have shown that artificial dyes might be linked to the development of Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in children, which lead to the European Union passing a law requiring any product that utilized one of these artificial dyes to be marked with a label stating that the product “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”

Baker Erin McKenna, who founded Erin McKenna’s Bakery (formerly named Babycakes), a pioneering gluten-free, vegan, all-natural confectionary, says that her NYC, Los Angeles, and Orlando-based bakeries use a number of natural ingredients and techniques to give their health-conscious treats a pop of color.

“We use chlorophyll for green, turmeric for yellow, and buy India Tree (a natural food coloring brand) for red and blue, which are derived from plants,” McKenna says, adding that she highly recommends India Tree’s all-natural products, which are available online and at most natural food stores.

In addition to chlorophyll (a vibrant pigment found in all green plants) and turmeric (a deep yellow spice extracted from the stem of an Indian plant), other common natural food colorings are carotenoids, which give pumpkins and sweet potatoes their rich orange and red tones—and work especially well with high-fat ingredients, like dairy products—and anthocyanins, deep purple and blue pigments that lend their tone to grapes, cranberries, and blueberries.

Bugs are another common natural method of food dying, including a type of insect called cochineal, which was used centuries ago by the Aztecs to dye fabrics red, are used today to color red products like cranberry juice. Though some might cringe at the idea of consuming the creepy crawlers, this flavorless form of dye has been commonly used in both food and cosmetic products for years.

According to McKenna, the flavors of her desserts are mostly unaffected by natural food colorings, with one exception: “The only taste difference I’ve ever noticed is when we make our red velvet. They almost have a raspberry finish to them.”

The vegan baker notes that natural dyes often need to be used in a higher quantity to achieve the desired color, “so you have to use a lot more than you’d think.” In order to compensate for this additional liquid, “reduce a wet ingredient by the equivalent when testing things out.”

She also adds that in general, “chlorophyll isn’t good for baking, because it gets really dull under heat and just ends up looking dirty,” so the green pigment is best used in frostings and other decorations.

In addition to the natural dyes already used at her bakeries, McKenna says it would also “be fun to play around with green juice, roasted beets, turmeric, strong tea, red wine.” In general, “anything you’d freak out if it got on your white shirt,” could potentially become your new favorite way to give your treats a colorful makeover.