Colouring our Food

I got an ice cream maker almost a year ago, and now I make all of my own ice cream. I haven’t purchased any store-bought ice cream in almost 12 months, and I don’t miss it. I can make pretty much any flavour I want, and when I make it I know exactly what goes into it. There are no unpronounceable ingredients, high-fructose corn syrup or artificial flavours. It’s still ice cream, so it’s not exactly health food, but I feel better eating my ice cream than any other ice cream.

One of the things that I’ve noticed since I started making my own ice cream is the difference in colour. When I make mint chocolate chip using peppermint extract, my ice cream is basically white. It looks more like vanilla ice cream with chocolate chips added than traditional mint chocolate chip. And ditto my maple walnut – it’s much lighter than store-bought maple walnut ice cream, although it tastes every bit as good.

As I munch on my pale-coloured frozen confection, it occurs to me that we consume a lot of colours in our packaged foods, without even thinking. I don’t think about it that much, anyway. I mean, sure, if we’re talking candy canes or kool-aid, I know that there’s bound to be colour in it. But I don’t think about colouring in ice cream, bread, cheese or margarine. And yet all of these foods have it.

Colour is flavourless, but its addition can definitely make foods more appealing. Take margarine, for example. It looks far more appetizing because it’s yellow, like butter. In fact, in the Canadian province of Quebec there was a law that remained on the books until 2008 that forbid the colouring of margarine. This law was originally created to placate dairy farmers, who wanted margarine to look less appetizing than butter. And I have to say that I certainly enjoy that creamy yellow colour.

As I think about food colouring, a few things strike me. The first is that its widespread use is essentially a marketing ploy for processed food. When things look good, we’re more likely to want to eat them. That’s hardly a huge leap to make. It’s true even for non-packaged foods, in fact. When I’m choosing apples at the market, I opt for the ones with the right size and colour. Colour provides us one clue as to what an apple will taste like. That instinct to choose the best colour can be put to use by manufacturers whether they make chicken nuggets, cookies or pudding.

Another thing that strikes me is that there aren’t always clear answers about the safety of various colouring agents. Food colouring comes from a variety of sources. Natural colouring is derived from plants, seeds, spices and even insects. Artificial colouring comes from a lab, and may not bear much resemblance to anything edible. For example, FD&C Yellow #5 contains tartrazine, which is derived from coal tar. Bugs and coal tar don’t exactly sound so yummy to me.

Let’s pick on tartrazine a little more. In some people, this additive causes allergic reactions. And there have been reports that its consumption, as well as the consumption of other food additives, leads to hyperactivity in children. There was a randomized, controlled study in the UK in 2007 that confirmed these findings.

But tartrazine isn’t alone. Studies have found different concerns with other food colouring, as well. For instance, FD&C Red #5 uses erythrosine, which is linked to thyroid tumors in rats. And natural colouring doesn’t get a pass, either. Carmine, which is a natural red dye, is derived from insects and isn’t vegan, vegetarian or kosher. And in some rare cases, it causes severe allergic reactions.

Let me be clear – I eat coloured food all the time. I have ice cream in my freezer right now that I added cinnamon hearts to, and I can guarantee you those don’t get their lovely, red hue by ripening on trees. Even my pristine ice cream has colouring, even if I don’t add it directly. My kids also eat food with colouring, and given the reality of life, I don’t see that stopping. I’m not ready to make all of my own food from ingredients I raise myself.

All the same, I think it’s important to be aware that a good portion of what we buy at the grocery store is coloured in order to make it more appealing. Those colours are not added because they’re good for us, they’re added to convince us that food will taste good, even though they have no actual effect on the taste. Reducing our consumption of processed foods where we can reduces our exposure to potentially harmful food colouring, and it will probably also lead to consuming better food, overall. Nobody needs to add colouring to make carrots orange, after all.

Now, I would really like to hear your thoughts. Do you think about colouring in food? Have you ever noticed a reaction in yourself or your kids when you consume certain additives? And would you be willing to eat food that wasn’t so appealingly coloured? Please share!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. We avoid foods with artificial dyes in them as much as possible. One of my nieces has an allergy to several food dyes so when we lived closer to her we just kept them out of our food because I never knew when I would be feeding her. It just became habit for me not to use artificial dyes or buy foods with them. When I’m not hugely pregnant & exhausted all the time I prefer to make our food from scratch with natural ingredients anyway. Right now we are eating more prepackaged foods, so I know we’re getting dyes.
    Amy’s last post … Maybe not so much sleepMy Profile

  2. I gave away my ice cream make in the fall because I wasn’t using it. Sigh. Of course, the other reason I gave it away is that if I have ice cream in the freezer I will eat it every night.
    Food colouring: I’ve been reading about nutrition this year – read a book on the Paleo diet and got through some of Omnivores Dilemma – and the only thing they can all agree on is eating ‘closer to the ground’. Non-processed foods that have one ingredient, like broccoli. Except in Omnivores Dilemma he tells you about the horrors of modern day farming. I need to join a CSA!
    Henry is still young and hasn’t been exposed to a lot of processed food. But if we give him a nibble of something sweet after dinner (ice cream sandwiches – I seem to be able to pace myself with those) he is wired and will not go to sleep. Makes me think, if that’s what a little processed sugar is doing to him, what’s it doing to me?
    Rachel’s last post … getting started- ideas- tips and tricksMy Profile

  3. I’ve actually been reading a lot about food coloring and how it’s really not necessary. Sure it makes food more appealing, but does it really add flavor? Of course not. A big concern of many Moms is finding a good vitamin for their kids that doesn’t include artificial food coloring. It’s hard.
    I don’t see a difference in myself or my kid with any allergic reactions to it, but I’m aware of the potential harm from it. At the same time, I don’t necessarily go out of my way to make sure I have a dye free home. I do what I can, when I can, but realistically, if we don’t have any allergies from it, I’m not that concerned. Maybe I should be based on what those dyes can do?
    There is so many warnings about foods, vitamins (or lack of), cleaning products, etc, it’s really hard to transition 100%.
    I recently noticed the box of Rainbow Goldfish that’s in my cabinet says it doesn’t have any artificial food coloring in it. And when looking at the fishies, they sure do look a little different. The green isn’t as green, it’s more spinachy looking, and the red is sort of brick colored. The orange? Well, that’s kind of a burnt orange. It makes me wonder what is really being done differently.
    Sara’s last post … Its a Snowman kind of dayMy Profile

  4. I try to avoid food coloring whenever possible, without doing all my shopping in the health food store.

    Most of what I feed my family is homemade. I make my own spelt bread (I’m sensitive to wheat) weekly and make the kids’ sandwiches out of that. Breakfast is usually branflakes or oatmeal, cottage cheese and fruit. Dinners are often chicken, casserole, or soup and salad. Since I don’t buy prepackaged foods, there are definitely a lot less colorings.

    I don’t check labels though, because I’m not going to make myself crazy to purge it all from our diets, and I know that my kids are getting plenty of it in school, so it would be a little pointless for me to go all out. There probably are dyes in the ketchup, but how much ketchup do they actually consume? I never did think about the vitamins though…

    Allergies can pop up in unexpected ways. I was allergic to every chemical under the sun, but the main reaction was pneumonia due to a weakened imune system. Hyperactivity, another common reaction, is also not something that most people would link to allergies or sensitivities, since there are so many other causes and associations.

    The bottom line though, is that most food colorings are carcinogenic. I would be thrilled to have boring looking food that was less visually exciting to eat if that meant that the cancer risk was lower.
    Miri’s last post … Yummy Healthy CookiesMy Profile

  5. Maman A Droit says:

    My dad is allergic to red dye-but I don’t know what kind-so I try to avoid that, especially red velvet cake. Who thought adding 1/3 cup of red dye to one batch of cake batter was a good idea?!? Gross. I would much prefer to eat things their natural colors. I’m trying to start making my own bread, and we have an ice cream maker we should use more often. Where do you find your recipes?

  6. The thought of so much crap in our food just grosses me out now. I try to make as much as I can myself… within reason… also read labels as carefully as I can, again within reason. So, yea, we’re definitely getting some food colouring in our foods but a minimal amount (I think). I try to stick to buying products that have very few ingredients listed and hopefully only ingredients I can pronounce. Usually, those kinds of products have less, if any, colouring added.

    I must get myself an ice-cream maker. In summertime I literally live off of ice-cream.
    Nadia @ Red, White and GREEN Mom’s last post … Raise your glassMy Profile

  7. I just heard on the news today about a study done showing a correlation between the amount of refined highly processed foods and IQ for children under three. By age eight, those young toddlers (three and under) who ate more processed foods toddlers had a lower IQ than their counterparts who ate fewer processed food products. Yet another reason to avoid highly refined processed foods.
    Rebecca B’s last post … My Other HalfMy Profile

  8. Very interesting stuff here, Amber!

    I just wanted to say that I live in Quebec, and when I moved here from Nova Scotia about 8 years ago, the margarine was one of the first differences I noticed. Our Becel was white! It looked like shortening. Ick. I’m used to it now, and some margarines are now slightly more yellow, but it is funny what we get accustomed to and what looks appetizing or not based on the colour. And I love your example about orange carrots – how true!

  9. I’ve had to take a closer look at what’s in our food because of my developing allergies and sensitivities. I have always noticed, though, that Orange Crush (an occasional treat always offered by someone else to my children at a party) made them act out in not usual ways, and became militant about people not offering it to my children. I myself react with a nasty facial breakout to foods that are more processed through dyes or nitrates/nitrites, and the feeling of being hung over. Not pleasant. :/

    I am always on the lookout for foods and vitamins that have no artificial colours and flavours. And, I recently stumbled across this blog, and its discussion of food colouring – have you read it before?

  10. I remember when they started adding food colouring to the Cheerios. It annoyed me that they are no longer “oat” coloured, now they look fake and there’s nothing I can do about it.

    When I was trying to see if my son was sensitive to dyes, I found buying so many commercial foods (especially strawberry jam) was so difficult! The dyes have such obscure names, sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking at.
    *pol’s last post … Drama ghostsMy Profile

  11. I must know what kind of ice cream make you have!
    We’ve been debating on getting one for the past YEAR, and simply can’t decide.
    So really, I am still avoiding the decision – by just wanting to get whichever one you say is great.

  12. I don’t find that my kids really react to anything. I can’t eat or drink anything fake orange – jello, mcdonald’s orange drink — it makes me barf. Mostly it just seems really stupid to me. I always buy the natural pistachios, I can’t believe anyone would choose to eat the fake red ones. Orange cheddar is equally dumb — we eat mozzarella that’s white, so why does the cheddar have to be orange? School lunches are my downfall — if not for those I would be much better at feeding my kids unprocessed unpackaged stuff, but there are only so many little containers of fruits and vegetables I can stuff in their lunch bags, and then throw out, before succombing to the granola bars and fruit-by-the-foot (you want to talk fake colours? yeesh).
    allison’s last post … Thoughts upon watching too much tv on a Friday NightMy Profile

  13. I never gave much thought to food colouring until we were in Italy a couple summers ago – I found myself eating a lot of foods that I might not otherwise buy and because they were unfamiliar and I had two little ones with me, I paid a lot more attention to the labels. Suddenly, I realized that colour was in everything. I mean everything – if it was marketed to kids, it had colour (and added sugar). Italians are known for their love of good food, but they are heavily won over by the power of “science” and “industry”: a typical Italian child actually eats a very processed diet these days (and they have the obesity to prove it).

    But I digress… Once you start looking, it’s hard to stop noticing – and once you know, it’s hard not to do anything about it. One aspect that is particularly frustrating is that many manufacturers don’t list what the colours are – just “colour” or “natural colour” (which at least is a start, though you point out the pitfalls there too). In any case, it’s another one of those good markers that tells you that you probably don’t want to be eating that (even if the colour or high-fructose corn syrup or whatever) isn’t deadly in and of itself.

    (And, yes, I am posting this comment on the very day that I posted my McDonald’s confession on my blog. I am multi-faceted that way :))

  14. Yet another reason why I prefer to make things from scratch!

    I must say, though, that not all added color is bad. Ever read Little House in the Big Woods, when Ma uses carrots to color the pale winter butter? Other colorings that are perfectly edible (that is, they are made of actual food items) include annatto, caramel color, beet juice, and various green vegetables. Annatto, I think, is what’s usually used in cheese. Of course these colorings aren’t as brightly colored as the fake ones, but personally, I don’t find neon-colored food appetizing at all! Probably because I know that it isn’t real.
    Sheila’s last post … 10 monthsMy Profile

  15. Love this post about homemade ice cream! We bought our ice-cream maker off Craigslist for $35 BNIB off a couple who got it as a wedding gift and hadn’t bothered to even open it. As it turned out, it was the BEST investment! We make our own ice-cream often and I love the fact that I can make it fresh, dairy-free (I use powdered egg replacer to thicken), refined sugar-free (agave syrup) and topped with any sort of fruit (i.e. fried bananas and walnuts). DS loves the treat, and I love that he’s not eating any crap!

  16. I prefer to make things from scratch when possible, but I’m sure there are still plenty of sources for my kids to get food coloring in their diets. It’s just so hard to avoid.

    I was talking with another mom today about food coloring issues because the school has just asked her to take her daughter for a formal ADHD diagnosis with her pediatrician, and to get medication. She wants to try diet first, which I was really glad to hear. Her daughter does have a lot of behavior issues in class, but I think it’s smarter to see if you can work it out other ways. They’ve long been avoiding red food dyes; I may have to mention the yellow to her now as well.

  17. My family does not eat foods with artificial dyes. They trigger all sorts of health problems including ADHD. In 2007, a study in Southampton showed all kids react to dyes and benzoates and now the European Union requires a warning label on foods containing them. In the US, the FDA is holding hearings on food dyes next month. The dyes are not good!

    There is a good support group: created in 1976 by parents with the concern of these additives. Be sure to watch the video on this website.

  18. This particular topic is one I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’ve been considering going whole hog and avoiding colouring for pretty much everything we eat. There are a few reasons for this but the main one being that my husband still suffers from some unknown ailment that we’re sure is food related, and my son has rashes that spontaneously appear now and then that I can’t figure out either.

    The problem with avoiding food colouring is that it’s such a PITA to do. I will literally have to make everything from scratch. And while that sounds appealing in theory, in practice not so much.
    Marilyn @ A Lot of Loves’s last post … Signs of Spring- Wednesday of Few Words linkyMy Profile

    • If I had to make everything from scratch, the Feingold diet would have been difficult. You don’t have to do that! I’m not a cook and making the decision as what to prepare for dinner doesn’t happen until an hour before eating.

      Being on it is not difficult at all. It is must finding a brand that is okay. The Feingold Association can help you.

      Also, there is a good Feingold Yahoo group.

  19. I really want to find a color-less alternative to Cherry Kool-aid. It is just about all my husband drinks and I won’t let him share it with our daughter. It isn’t even the sugar that bothers me, but all the nasty dye.
    Momma Jorje’s last post … Parenting EssentialsMy Profile

  20. I was very disappointed when I learned that red velvet cake was red because of food coloring, not because of a natural ingredient. So . . . I’m very intrigued by your earlier commenter’s statement that it’s red from a reaction between vinegar and cocoa powder. Hmmm, haven’t seen that in a recipe yet but I will look for it!
    Lady M’s last post … Wheels and SkisMy Profile

  21. I do think about coloring in food some, but I’ve never noticed a difference in behavior from my kids…probably because the colors are mostly accompanied by loads of sugar so who can tell anything? I do look at ingredients and try to avoid processed foods. We bought some natural food coloring for our ice cream! Probably made with bugs, but oh well, we aren’t vegan.
    Amber’s last post … a little of this- a little of thatMy Profile

  22. My country has many faults, but we were pioneers when it comes to coloring in food.
    Francesca’s last post … in passing – two yearsMy Profile

  23. I remember reading that they used to colour the butter with carrots to make it look nicer. So I think it is quite an old trick.

    Also I feel bad about the amount of food colouring in our household right now. The baby (he is sooo still my baby!) is potty training and I have resorted to smarties to get the concept across. You don’t get much more colourful than that…

  24. The importance of the appearance of our food cannot be argued. But, the coloring agent should be clearly marked in plain English. Here in the US they can just say “coloring.” What kind of information is that? In fact, I want to see EVERYTHING that’s in my food clearly defined.

    We won’t get any of this you know. The definition of “safe” has become “you can’t prove it killed anybody yet.” Our entire food supply has been tampered with. We have all become walking chemistry experiments. My advice is, trust your instincts. It’s too late to get all the bad chemicals out of our food, but we can minimize them. It is the best we can do.

    Search on “Homemade Food Coloring – Healthy and Toxin Free.” I think you will find the information useful.
    A Man’s last post … Tomato SoupMy Profile

I love comments! If yours doesn't appear immediately, it was caught by my spam filter. Drop me a line and I'll rescue it.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amber Strocel, Lusso Baby. Lusso Baby said: RT @AmberStrocel: Some musings on food, and food colouring: […]

  2. […] all candies, the cinnamon heart. They’re probably chock full of high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colouring, but man alive they’re delicious. I could eat bowls full of cinnamon […]

  3. […] suspect that the colour difference has to do with marketing. We view food differently based on its colour. Brown eggs somehow seem more natural. White eggs seem cleaner and maybe even a little bit […]

Share Your Thoughts


Subscribe to followup comments

CommentLuv badge