If you’ve been reading this blog long, you’ve figured out that I’m a pretty nerdy baker.  A chemical engineer by training, I love to analyze and experiment with my recipes. After posting a very popular Red Velvet cake made with beets, I began investigating the science behind what it takes to make a cake red and expanded it into a review for the ChEnected blog.

In my research for the article, I became more and more convinced that I’d like to wean myself off of the Wilton colors I had been using in my decorating and focus more on naturally derived options. Since having a little girl just over a year ago, my label-reading skills have kicked into overdrive! But you might ask yourself, what colors can I make with natural food coloring?

Well, since you asked… all of these:

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Aren’t they fun?! Of course you’ll notice right away that they aren’t the super saturated colors you get with artificial colors, but I’ll always prefer beets to coal tar in my food!

Natural Food Colorings

The benefit to using mainstream food coloring is that you get concentrated vibrant color in a very wide range of shades. But after experimenting with using beets to color red velvet cake and icing, I knew there had to be other options out there. With a lot of Google research, I found a handful of companies making natural food coloring products.  I even created a Pinterest board to keep track of natural food coloring producers I could find and some DIY recipes.

I’m going to share a few things I learned along the way so that you’ll know what you can expect of natural food colorings and what is wishful thinking. Choosing plant-derived food colorings might seem like an obvious option, but there are some caveats that you’ll have to be willing to accept:

  • First off, they can be expensive – as much as $20 for a set of basic red, blue and yellow. For me it’s worth the extra cost to feel good about what I’m feeding folks.

  • They also have a pretty short shelf life. No preservatives are added and many of the liquid based ones I came across suggest refrigerating or freezing them. (Even then you seem to have about a 6 month window to use them up.)

  • The colors are not as vibrant as traditional food colorings. In my experience blue is the hardest color to achieve, but all of the tones will be more muted that you might expect if you are used to working with artificial colors. They’re earthy. I’m okay with that.

  • They behave a little differently than commercial food colorings and are particularly heat and pH sensitive. You might have to brush up on your chemistry skills to achieve the colors you want.

Color Garden Pure Natural Food Colors

As part of my hunt for natural food coloring options, I recently came across Color Garden. These are a line of natural food colorings used in Whole Foods bakeries that are just becoming available to home bakers. I asked them if they’d send me some to play with and they did! (This post isn’t sponsored, they just sent the awesome kit below for me to test out.)

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My first order of business was to see what kinds of colors you can really expect out of natural food coloring. The Color Garden colors come in Red, Orange, Yellow & Blue. Each box  is a set of 5 packets meant for one-time use.

Next I headed to Whole Foods to check out their bakery cakes for some color inspiration.

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I had fun making a huge batch of Swiss Meringue Buttercream and then creating a bunch of different colors with it. In doing so, I learned a lot about how the natural food coloring behaves and created a handy guide in the process.

What you need to know about Color Garden Natural Food Colors:

  • Each packet of Color Garden contains about 170 drops of natural food coloring.
  • They are meant to be flavorless, though in high concentrations, I could detect some flavor and a cabbagey scent resulting from the blue food coloring.
  • The red and yellow hues prefer an acidic environment to retain their color, whereas the blue needs a basic environment.
  • When mixing acidic red and basic blue, instead of getting purple like you’d expect, it turns gray due to an acid/base reaction.
  • Interestingly, over time, the gray frosting became more purple, but a deep purple frosting was difficult to create.
    graypurplecolorchange
  • Black is another obvious challenge that is difficult to meet with natural options.

If you would like to create your own naturally colorful frostings, download my Natural Food Coloring Guide as a PDF. It explains exactly how many drops of each color you’ll need to create all the colors in the first image above. I hope it’s a great resource as you explore how to make your confections naturally colorful!

Psst: I will be teaching a cake decorating workshop at Becoming 2013 using the Color Garden Pure Natural Food Coloring. There are 8 spots left so we’d love you to join us for a fun weekend of becoming more creative, frugal and purposeful.