We’re in a most colorful season! We’ve decked the halls of our homes with red, green, gold and silver. Our windows and lawns are adorned with multi-colored lights. The holidays are upon us with every shade of every festive color we can think of! Often, though, those colors extend to our holiday baking. Holiday cakes and cookies can involve not only the shapes and images of the season, but its colors as well. Sugar cookies shaped like Santa, gingerbread men and women with red lips and blue eyes, red velvet cake, yule logs, green tree cakes … the list can be endless and very imaginative.
But can we do this without the use of, say, Yellow No. 5, Red No. 40, Green No. 3 and other artificial colors? Can we opt for natural color that might also add nutritional value to our baking and cooking?
“You can certainly use freeze-dried fruit, beet juice and spices like saffron and turmeric to create color in baking,” says Susan Reid, a chef and baking expert who teaches and develops recipes for King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt.
And there is plenty of nutritional value in the foods and spices Reid lists:
●Freeze-dried berries such as strawberries and blueberries contain antioxidant phytochemicals, vitamins and folic acid.
● Beets are full of vitamins and minerals.
● Turmeric— well, the list is long but may include cancer- and heart-disease-prevention properties as well as the treatment of a range of digestive issues and even depression.
● Saffron contains vitamins and other important nutrients, and there are indications that it can help prevent and treat everything from depression to high cholesterol.
So not only do these colorful fruits and spices seem to cover our needs for red, blue, orange and yellow in our holiday favorites, they also seem to help our general health.
But how about the all-important green?
“You’re not going to get a really intense green with natural food color. It will be more muted,” Reid says.
If you can live with a more muted, forestlike green, there are a few ways to go.
For example, says Liz Lipski, director of academic development for nutrition and integrative health at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, you can use spirulina, wheat grass juice or spinach powder to achieve a muted green:
● Spirulina is a blue-green algae full of protein, vitamins and minerals.
● Wheat grass includes amino acids, vitamins and iron.
● Spinach contains calcium, vitamins and folate.
Just be careful not to use too much. “If you use enough to make it bright green, it will affect the flavor,” Lipski says.
Indeed, you could get great yellows with onion — but onion cake doesn’t sound too appealing. Or you could grind down marigolds (which are edible), but that would affect the taste, too.
“It would be pretty hard to disguise the flavor,” Reid says.
In other words, if you want to use natural — and, as it turns out, nutritious — food coloring, you have to change your expectations a bit, say Reid and Lipski. Maybe learn to accept less intense colors and focus instead on flavor and nutrition, Lipski suggests.
“But especially with kids — how do we acclimate them to less color?” Lipski asks. She is the author of “Digestive Health for Children” and a proponent of moving away from the use of artificial food colors that contain petroleum and are often either banned or require warning labels in Europe.
But even if you can persuade the kiddos — and others — to accept forest-green Christmas cookies over their neon counterparts, there is still the challenge of getting the recipes right. You will become part chemist, part baker.
If, for example, you add liquid, you will have to adjust the entire recipe or you might end up with a soupy mess.
Of course, if you want to make it easy on yourself but still would prefer natural over artificial, King Arthur Flour sells natural food coloring by the bottle and the sprinkle; and Whole Foods sells items from Colorgarden.net and Indiatree.com, says Joel Singer, Whole Foods Markets’ Mid-Atlantic associate bakery coordinator.
Singer, who agrees with Lipski and Reid that natural food coloring — even the store-bought variety — tends to be less strong, says “it is best used in an icing application than the cake itself.”
Whole Foods’ own bakeries use colors derived from beets (red), annatto root (orange) and spinach (green), Singer says.
But let’s go back to home-baking with a touch of chemistry in the mix.
For example, Lipski says, if you are making red velvet cake you could swap out the red food coloring for pureed beets.
FoodFacts.com wants to add that there are recipes all over the internet that will help you become that kitchen chemist. And if you’re not keen on chemistry, you can also find more than a few brands of natural food coloring that you can use the same way you would the artificial type. The colors are different and can be affected by the other ingredients in your recipes, but most brands provide guidance on what you can expect.
We’ll gladly trade the brightly colored cookies for softer hues. While we love our colorful holidays, our health will benefit from the trade off!