Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Natural Food Colorings- Pros and Cons

Because I use fairly vivid color in so much of my stuff, I'm a pretty big target out there for people who like to lecture me on the dangers of all the artificial colorings they're sure I'm using. The big problem with this is that, being a lifelong cancer patient and extremely conscious of what nasty chemicals might be entering my body, I actually use natural colors whenever I can. If you think some of my combinations are weird on the surface, try beet-flavored rice with a trailing vine of wasabi on top.

My coloring of choice is India Tree, but around here it's difficult to come by. Stores that carry India Tree dragées, decorating sugars and candied flowers have a mysterious and conspicuous absence of their food coloring. I almost always have to order it. Sometimes boxes pop up on ebay, or you can get them at sites like this.

The ingredients (going straight off the box, here):

Blue: Deionized water, glycerin, red cabbage.
Red: Beet juice, citric acid.
Yellow: Deionized water, glycerin, curcumin.

All natural stuff, a little dab goes far, and like any basic set of food colorings you can mix just about any color you want by tinkering with combinations.

The big drawback to natural food colorings (and this includes vegetable juices in general), is that you never quite get the flavor of the original plant out of the end product. Depending on how much you use, your rice can taste vaguely of cabbage or beets. The eggwhite pieces you painstakingly dyed orange may retain a slight, barely perceptible touch of turmeric. And this is just fine with savory ingredients (especially if you love Desi food), but it can get a tad weird when you're working with sweet stuff.

Also, there aren't many "black" natural food colorings, apart from squid or cuttlefish ink, and if you're allergic to shellfish like I am, that can pose a bit of a problem.

So as much as I love to use natural colorings, and as much as the health benefits are worth the extra expense, when I'm cooking for others I can never be quite sure how they'd feel about turmeric-flavored frosting on a cake. So no, I don't use them exclusively.

A totally organic, totally natural food base is definitely the ideal, and I make those choices whenever I can, but it doesn't work out for me 100% of the time. Sometimes I will use a drop of the cheap artificial stuff from the grocery store baking aisle. Not a lot, and not often, but it happens sometimes. I look around me and see brightly colored candies, drinks, and lots of seemingly "healthy" items, and read the labels only to find they're loaded with artificial colorings. I think we're taking in more of the stuff than we know, so I'm going to count being Generally Conscious of it as being a step in the right direction.

If you look at some very popular Japanese bento foods, you'll see that most patterned kamaboko, also mamenori, are made with either vaguely "natural" or outright artificial colorings. (Carmine powder, for the record, is made from the shell of a particular type of beetle). Some companies are better about using natural colorings than others. Many Indian foods, particularly sweets, also use colorings extensively.

If you don't mind the higher price, I definitely recommend ordering some India Tree coloring and giving it a try. Taste for yourself and decide if it's something you'd like to incorporate. I'm trying to adopt an approach of moderation- use natural when I can, artificial in small doses. It's just a matter of reading labels, staying informed and making the choices that fit your lifestyle.

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