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Beets and blueberries

Of all the food additives and ingredients that make me sweat, food coloring is the worst. Because, you see, it’s all about looks. Food manufacturers don’t claim that artificial colors improve the “integrity of food and beverage products,” as they do with high-fructose corn syrup. (Seriously. Read this.) They don’t claim that fake colors help preserve food or improve texture or boost flavor. No. For all the semantic gymnastics required to justify other questionable ingredients, manufacturers’ case for fake food coloring comes down to this: It makes food look good.

Fake food, that is. Like “fruit” snacks that get their color not from the product’s fruit concentrate, but from synthetic chemicals named Red 40, Yellow 5 and Blue 1. Or mac & cheese colored with Yellow 5 and Yellow 6. Or the countless packaged foods that use color to simulate the presence of actual fruits and vegetables. Even some oranges are treated with Citrus Red 2 to intensify the orange color. Oranges colored with fake orange. Jaw-dropper.

Forget that artificial colors have been linked* to hyperactivity, learning difficulties and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. (Effects noted as long ago as the 1970s and as recently as 2007.) Or that some research connects food dyes with cancer and other health problems. Or that the U.K. Food Standards Agency** (which funded the 2007 study) encourages parents and manufacturers to avoid food dyes, a move that prompted the European Parliament to require dye warning labels.

No. If that bright blue or pink makes someone want to buy it — and preferably a 3-foot-tall someone — then job well-done.

And get this: Those changes in Europe led some U.S. food companies to drop (cheap) fake dye in favor of (expensive) natural colors in products it sells overseas, but not here at home. Infuriating, right?


Last year, Blue 1
Next year, red cabbage

No surprise, then, that we try really hard to avoid food dyes. If I tell my daughter “there’s artificial color in this,” she knows her chances of eating it are slim. There’s one big exception, and that’s her birthday cake. It’s the only time I put my cake-decorating class to good use, so those colors had better be Disney perfect, and I’ve had lousy luck getting natural colorings to work consistently with frosting. Not anymore, though: A friend just turned me on to the India Tree brand, so next birthday I’m going all-natural.

I’ve been beating this drum for so long that Tess knows artificial colors are bad for her. She has moments when only the most brightly colored crack will do, but often she realizes after a bite or two that just because something  is pretty doesn’t mean it tastes good. Still, I kept wishing there was some way to make the issue more tangible for her.

Which brings me (finally) to my eggsperiment. It’s Easter. Time to color eggs. Why not use fruits and vegetables to dye them naturally? And have a little plant-science lesson on the side? Out came the neon dye tablets leftover from last year. (We dyed. We did not eat.) Then the test tubes from a science kit. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz — oh what a fake color that is.

Me to Tess: “Have you ever seen colors like that in nature?”

Tess: a dutiful grimace and shake of the head.

On to the stove, where we filled pots with eggs, water and various fruits, vegetables and juices. (Here’s wheredirect you to folks more kitchen-crafty than me, so you, too, can experience the joy of boiling eggs along with beets and blueberry juice.)

We used brown eggs (instead of the recommended white eggs), so the colors were unpredictable. The beets produced a warm dark brown. Spinach didn’t take at all.  The blueberry juice, however, made a deep purple that got a “cool” out of my daughter. And because she really wants pink eggs, we’re going to try another batch with raspberry or pomegranate juice.

As each pot filled with the color of the cooking produce, we talked about how plants have so many beautiful natural colors and how each color represents nutrients our bodies need. With color extracts literally seeping into the water, there was no question at all where they came from, or that we can find all the color we need without putting on a lab coat.

Not that Tess was entirely sold. She’s since informed me that she wants to go back to the fake dyes “because I like the pretty colors.” But, she added (insert dramatic pause), “we don’t have to eat them.”

What’s your stance on artificial colors? And how have you explained it to your kids?

* The Center for Science in the Public Interest has urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban food dyes and is collecting personal stories to share with legislators.

 ** The European Food Safety Authority, an independent agency, took a more conservative approach. But it plans to re-evaluate all colors by mid-2011.

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