September 05, 2018
Everyone wants to have their rainbow sprinkle covered cake, and eat it, too! That is, we want the nostalgic, joyful experience of delicious baked goods adorned with color, design, and whimsy, even if we don’t necessarily want some of the less-than-ideal ingredients that all too often make those colors and that whimsy possible. That’s why, here at Meringueshop, we carefully craft our decorating confetti with the highest quality ingredients we can find – including the colors that make them so beautiful to the eye.
Fortunately for us and other bakeries, there are more and more options for natural food colorings cropping up. Some not only vow to never use preservatives or FD&C dyes, but also are free of the top eight allergens in the United States. These colorings are instead made from phytonutrients – vitamins, antioxidants, polyphenols, and pigments – all derived from plants.
You see, plants have been used throughout time by humans as dyes for cloth, paint, and yes, even food. And while we don’t delude ourselves into thinking that our sprinkles hold some kind of superfood status because they’re tinted with plants instead of artificial dyes, the pigments that plants possess have nonetheless been studied for their potential health benefits. So no, putting spinach in our green hued confetti certainly won’t ever count as one of your servings of veggies for the day (sorry!), but If given the choice between using a plant-based dye with potential benefits or an artificial dye with potential consequences…we don’t have to think too long and hard about which to choose.
So where, exactly, are these colors coming from? Let’s take a closer look at some of our favorite plant-based colors, how they affect your food, and how they could, in theory, be affecting your body in a pretty cool way.
Primary Colors: Red (and Pink)
Starting at the beginning of the rainbow, red can be a tricky color to achieve due to its high degree of saturation. One of the best plant sources of a vibrant red pigment is the red radish which, depending on the acidity level of the dish you want to dye, can range anywhere from tropical punch red all the way to light purple. (That’s the thing about plant-based dyes; they require some experimenting to understand the right pH, temperature, and overall conditions for each unique pigment!) When it comes to health and wellness, radishes, being a member of the brassica family, contain compounds that have been studied for their potential anticancer properties in the human body; and the radish juice specifically may even strengthen the mucosal barrier in your stomach to reduce inflammation.
Pink winds up being a much easier shade of red to achieve from plants. Beets are one common source, imparting very little flavor to the finished product. The color of a red beet comes from compounds called betalains, which have been associated with reduced inflammation in the human body. Beets also contain high amounts of naturally occurring nitrates, which dilate blood vessels in a way shown to help lower blood pressure, enhance athletic performance, and even support brain health.
Another natural source of the pink tone is hibiscus, which can impart a slightly fruity flavor to the finished product. Often consumed more medicinally as a tea, the hibiscus plant provides significant amounts of polyphenolic antioxidants, and may help lower blood pressure and support liver health.
Primary Colors: Blue
Given that blue is not really a color in the natural world, it may be surprising that it’s actually quite easy to source a natural blue pigment for food coloring. That’s largely thanks to spirulina, an algae containing a vibrant blue pigment called phycocyanin. It isn’t the most stable in beverages or when heated, and performs best in an alkaline or neutral pH, but has recently garnered quite a bit of attention in the food industry, having been approved officially by the FDA for use as a natural food coloring.
This is extremely exciting news, as spirulina does not just provide a beautiful blue color to foods, but also contains significant health-supportive compounds. Although claims related to spirulina’s beneficial effect on blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and depression are not well supported by the research at this time, the uniquely hued algae remains a notable source of essential omega-3 fatty acids, B complex vitamins, beta carotene, vitamin E, zinc, copper, selenium, iron, and manganese. Oh, and it’s a plant-based protein source, to boot!
Primary Colors: Yellow
Anyone who has ever splashed a little curry on their white shirt while dining (please say it’s not just us…) will understand the power of turmeric’s yellow pigment. It likes to dye anything and everything in its path a stubborn and bright yellow, making it a no-brainer for our final primary color. Be warned, though, that if used in an alkaline preparation, it can actually turn red instead!
Turmeric has been used for centuries in India’s ancient ayurvedic medicine practices to treat everything from breathing problems and pain to fatigue. Western research lags a little behind the traditions, though, with most of the studies done on isolated curcumin (the powerful substance found in turmeric) rather than on the whole turmeric plant itself. What we do know, however, is that you can enhance the absorption of the curcumin found in turmeric if you pair the spice with a little black pepper and fat.
Of course, once you have your three primary pigments, the world is your (rainbow) oyster. For example, we can combine spirulina with beets to get purple under certain pH conditions, or with turmeric for a beautiful green.
However, there are also direct plant sources of secondary colors, if you’re not as keen on playing mad scientist in the kitchen!
Orange, for example, often comes from the annatto seed, which performs best in alkaline rather than acidic recipes. Traditionally the annatto seed has been used for its positive effects on blood pressure, inflammation, viral infections, and heart health; though it should be noted that in a select few people, it may trigger IBS symptoms or (rarely) an allergic reaction.
Leafy green vegetables are a solid option for green coloring agents, though they must be very concentrated in order to impart that same vibrance we have come to associate with artificial green dyes. They are also very pH dependent, something anyone knows who has ever tried cooking spinach in lemon juice (an acid). Chlorophyll, you see, turns vibrant green in the presence of a base (like baking soda), but a drab, olive green when exposed to an acid. These leafy greens are famously health-supportive, of course, with significant amounts of carotenoids, lutein, and zeaxanthin for eye health, vitamin K for blood clotting, folate, iron (though it’s not particularly well absorbed), and the same naturally-occurring nitrates of which beets like to boast.
And then there’s black.
Although some would argue that black isn’t technically a color at all, it deserves a spot in this glossary of natural colorings. After all, black and white cookies would be more like brown and white cookies without some kind of black pigment in a baker’s colorful culinary arsenal.
For this, many have started turning to activated charcoal, which has become quite the culinary trend lately. Sourced from coconut ash, activated charcoal will turn most light recipes grey, but if you use enough of it or add it to something that is naturally darker (like a cocoa-based icing), it will actually turn the recipe black.
Activated charcoal’s primary use stems from the medical field. This form of charcoal becomes very porous and is a champion at absorbing…anything in its path. This has made it the ER treatment of choice for many poisonings, as well as the new darling child of the wellness sphere, with so many people looking to “detox.” Now, this latter use is largely unsubstantiated, and you want to be careful when using this product in large quantities because it’s incapable of distinguishing between a “toxin” you might want it to absorb and a medication or nutrient you don’t want it to absorb. That’s why it’s important to consume charcoal-infused recipes from trusted locations, and maybe don’t go sprinkling it on absolutely everything you eat throughout the day. It’s also generally recommended to consume activated charcoal separately from medications. Rest assured, though, that small amounts, as we make sure to use for our products, are considered a harmless alternative to artificial black dyes, even if they aren’t the miracle cleansers many wellness “gurus” claim them to be.
And there you have it! The plant-based “secrets” behind our colorful confetti. When you harness the power of plants, the sky is the limit for what beautiful desserts you can create!
Ready to dive in? There are plenty of resources out there to help you make your own natural food dyes, or you can let us do the hard work for you and simply pick up a bag of our tried and true sprinkles in a variety of natural color combinations!
Guest contributor, Jessica Serdikoff
Jessica has been driven all her life by a passion for food. Getting her informal start in her grandmother’s kitchen many years ago, she took a brief culinary hiatus to become a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. Her curiosity and enthusiasm for food, recipe development, and kitchen creativity never left her, though, leading her most recently to graduate from the chef’s training program at the Natural Gourmet Institute of NYC. Now she has the know-how to geek out about food and the science behind it!
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